STUDIO – 20th Century Fox
DIRECTOR – Wes Anderson
MPAA Rating: PG
When the nominees for the 81st Academy Awards were announced in January 2010, one of the Best Animated Feature picks was a movie I had not heard of. Directed by Wes Anderson, Fantastic Mr. Fox, released in November 2009, only managed to recoup about half of its reported $40 million budget in six months. Undaunted, I put it in my Queue, and waited for its arrival.
Based on the book by Roald Dahl (author of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”), Fantastic Mr. Fox is the story of (naturally) a fox (voice of George Clooney) known for his reputation as a notorious bird thief. One day, he and his newlywed bride, Felicity (voice of Meryl Streep), get caught while stealing squab. At that moment, she tells him she’s pregnant, and she makes him promise that if they get out of this alive, he will find a new job. Fast-forward 12 (fox) years later, and Mr. Fox, Felicity, and their son Ash (voice of Jason Schwartzman) live in a nice, yet humble, hole in the ground. Mr. Fox, now a newspaper columnist, spots a tree for sale in the morning paper. Later that day, while viewing the property, he sees three farms in the distance. He consults his attorney, Mr. Badger (Bill Murray), who advises against the purchase because the owners of those farms are very dangerous men. Feeling the urge to steal again, he buys the tree anyway, moves his family in, and plots one last job: steal from the three farms.
Visually, Fantastic Mr. Fox is fun and stimulating. Director Wes Anderson doesn’t try to do any new tricks. Rather, he employs the old ones with cleverness and flare. There is one sequence, for example, in which Ash’s cousin, Kristofferson (voice of Eric Chase Anderson – Wes Anderson’s brother) is introduced to whack-bat, a sport which somewhat resembles cricket. According to the coach (voice of Owen Wilson):
“Basically, there’s three grabbers, three taggers, five twig runners, and a player at whack-bat. Center tagger lights a pine cone and chucks it over the basket and the whack-batter tries to hit the cedar stick off the cross rock. Then the twig runners dash back and forth until the pine cone burns out and the umpire calls hotbox. Finally, you count up however many score-downs it adds up to and divide that by nine.”
Kinda makes cricket look easier to understand, huh?
Another clever device in this movie is the insertion of the word “cuss” in place of profanities. Adults will, for the most part, get the true meaning behind the “cussing” (for lack of a better term), while still making this movie safe for kids’ ears. There is some violence in this movie, including a few (off-screen) bird kills, some gunplay by the farmers, and more than a few pine cone grenades.
There is a subplot involving Ash and Kristofferson, to which many kids should easily relate. Kristofferson is Ash’s cousin from out-of-town, and though Kristofferson is younger than Ash, he is also taller, more athletic, more mature, and more sociable than Ash. At first, Kristofferson’s presence make Ash envious, particularly when Fox becomes very impressed with him. As the movie progresses, Ash learns how embrace his differences, while both finding his own identity and gaining his father’s acceptance.
There are a lot of good things to say about Fantastic Mr. Fox, but it is not without its flaws. I have said this before, and I will say again: for the most part, the voice talent sounds like they’re phoning it in. What projects of this nature need is personalities, not stars. If someone is both, like Bill Murray, great! Bring ’em on. But, through most of the movie, Clooney and Streep lacked the energy to hold my attention to the dialogue. I said the same thing when I wrote about Coraline (another stop-motion Best Animated Feature nominee). And when you have big-name stars who (for lack of a better term) don’t have any “spark” when they speak in person, then how could they work as voice actors in an animated movie? True, Fox is a bad-boy type, and Clooney suits him well. But to me, George Clooney’s voice is about as interesting as the sound of noodles boiling in water.
Overall, it is refreshing to see animation making strides like this, and without the Disney, Pixar, or Dreamworks names hanging above them. Nothing against the work of those companies, but the more choices, the better the competition. Fantastic Mr. Fox is a good family film, suitable for children age 8 and up. It is visually inventive, and it includes an eclectic soundtrack which features (among others) Burl Ives, The Beach Boys, The Bobby Fuller Four, and The Rolling Stones. There are even two songs originally found in the Disney archives: “The Ballad of Davy Crockett”, and “Love”, which was first used in Disney’s animated Robin Hood (By the way, in that film, Robin was – you guessed it – a fox). It may lack some necessary energy, but Fantastic Mr. Fox both tells a good story and teaches a valuable lesson about embracing our differences.
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