With Fantastic Mr. Fox, Wes Anderson the auteur, the charming orchestrator of verbal banter, the rigorous explorer of family melancholy, comes full circle and revisits the nuanced themes and motifs of his two previous masterpieces (Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums). Anderson’s first official foray into animation clarifies what the director has been building toward with his last few films, problematic pictures about misbegotten families that confuse deep irony with deep humanity.
Fox, an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s book, takes Anderson’s themes to a far superior level, using stop-motion animation to infuse the lively creatures beneath us with human traits, emotions, and conflicts, complicating the beasts and their burdens with inevitable change. The film frolics at a breakneck pace, cramming detail upon detail into strikingly composed frames, revealing a sublime order from mother nature’s darker hues. In short, the film creates a dynamic, communal animal universe with traditions, histories, and legends that all layer into a superbly specific tale of adaptation, instinct, regret, and contentment.
And so it begins, with Mr. Fox (George Clooney) leaning confidently against a skinny tree overlooking a vast valley, immersed in a tape cassette recording of “The Ballad of Davy Crockett”, pleased with his profession (killing chickens) and his singular family (wife Felicity Fox voiced by Meryl Streep). It’s possibly the only moment in the film where our hero is alone, and it can easily get forgotten amongst the countless joyous moments to follow. But it speaks volumes about his character as a kind rogue flushed with self-confidence, waiting for life to happen, hiding insecurities about parenting, later entranced back toward darkness by a mid-life craving of sorts. This type of complexity inhabits each of Anderson’s characters, and the world seems to evolve from their mere existence.
Deep seeded emotions carve these characters into complex animals, rendering the fabric of their hair, skin, claws, and teeth. Parental influence, sibling rivalry, responsibility, and trauma become benchmarks for their interactions, creating kindred moments akin to Max’s deep longing for his mother in Rushmore or Chas’ haunting admission at the end of Tenenbaums. Their detail evolves from the colorful and illuminating mise-en-scene – interiors flushed with portraits, landscape paintings, objects of affection, and clothes, exteriors dense with movement, danger, and elemental shifts. Anderson takes his characters through holes, trees, sewers, and finally into the sun, basking in the glow of immediacy. Color pops from every angle – the red of Fox’s tail, Badger’s dark suit, and Ash’s light blue cape immediately make an impact.
Wes Anderson creates universes from the ground up, rooting space, time, and style within the organic makeup the characters, and when he’s most successful the screen pops with visual splendor and darkly comedic undertones. Fantastic Mr. Fox has these traits and more, illuminating the texture of wild instinct, the detail of fatherhood, and the colorful glow of love. If these brilliant incarnations seem occasionally forlorn, it’s because the wild animal in them takes a backseat to their human soul, for the good of friendship and family. But Anderson also understands that each needs to release the necessary beast inside, if only for a moment, to eat, scream, or hold an occasional rumpus.