If nothing else immediately pounces on you upon starting Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, then the gorgeous colors certainly will. This vibrantly crafted world of fall hues perfectly reflects our cast of characters, who give off some semblance of heat just like its marvelous reds, oranges and yellows. Mr. Fox and his family emanate a genuine, dry warmth; our antagonists give off a curmudgeonly and intimidating fire. The human honesty of its characters and the sumptuous autumnal palette make Fantastic Mr. Fox an incredibly toasty film in the best way.
Mr. Fox (George Clooney) aims to relive the glory of his bird-stealing days by pulling off one last heist on three poultry farmers with the help of Kylie (Wallace Wolodarsky), his soft-spoken opossum friend. His vulpine family, consisting of wife Felicity (Meryl Streep), son Ash (Jason Schwartzman) and visiting nephew Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson), as well as the entire animal community at large, are put at risk when the farmers seek revenge for his thievery. There are many moving parts to this story: Fox’s master plan, his disconnect with his “different” son in favor of the more athletically talented Kristofferson, the farmers’ increasingly destructive scheming and the fashion in which Mr. Fox bands his neighbors together to redeem himself for his mistake, which may determine their very survival. It moves at a brisk pace, particularly because of Anderson and Baumbach’s laser-focused script, and somehow accomplishes all that it sets out to do in less than ninety minutes.
The visuals are Fantastic Mr. Fox’s trademark. The animal puppets are intricately designed with not a string of fur out of place. I especially love how sharply our characters dress in this movie. Anderson is a largely compositional director and his love of crafting pretty pictures meshes incredibly well with the stop-motion style, granting him full control over each detailed image. For my money though, it’s the characterization which grants Fantastic Mr. Fox the soul of its visual life. The tightness of the script keeps the film from overstaying its welcome, but comes at the cost of depth in dialogue at times (“What’s the subtext here?” Mr. Fox asks). The nuance that the quip-heavy lines are wanton of, however, is always consistently worn on the characters’ faces. Our cinematographers seem aware of this too, since so many conversations are composed of individual closeups to their furry mugs. Every flicker of the eye, every grit of the teeth and every welling up of a tear is created on these little puppets frame-by-painstaking-frame, and Wes Anderson wants us to see it all.
I don’t want to give off the impression that the dialogue is bad, because it totes Anderson’s offbeat brand of humor in spades. Clooney delivers his Mr. Fox lines with charming agility, but doesn’t rush his lines, with the inflections of each individual word oozing with the character’s dry wit. There are too many excellent quotes to recount all of them but, “I’m not afraid of wolves, but I have a phobia of ‘em!” is up there for sure. A favorite feature is the use of the word “cuss” (a game changer addition to my childhood vocabulary), which fuels the film’s funniest scene, in which Mr. Fox and his Badger lawyer, played by Bill Murray, literally cuss each other out. There are serious bits littered into each scene because every character is completely upfront about their needs: “I don’t want to live in a hole anymore, it makes me feel poor,” Mr. Fox tells Felicity at one point. The honesty of the exchanges and the humanity of the performances allow the text to access a multiplicity it lacks on paper by itself. Though it shows most of its cards, the film’s emotional core remains intact. This is one of those rare movies which would benefit from a longer run time. More time would let the characters play with one another and hide things within longer scenes, and I wouldn’t complain about extending my stay in this visually sumptuous world.
Ironically, the impetus of the film’s conflict comes from Mr. Fox’s dishonesty, one of the few times a character isn’t candid about what they want. This is likely because he’s caught in a conflict too difficult to articulate with a quick joke. His animal nature dances between the youthful wildness of bygone days of bird pilfering and using his vulpine wit to ensure the safety of his family. He desires a connection with his animal instincts, yet has a phobia of wolves, a symbol of untamed nature. It’s a mid-life crisis story that I could digest at eight years old: Mr. Fox’s selfish need to prove himself alive takes precedence over the people in his life. He discovers the “wild animal craziness” he feels wanton of in the surprises and talents he discovers about his wife, son and friends, which have been in front of him the entire time. What transforms him into this “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is his increased awareness about what makes others fantastic and his knack for organizing these talents for their mutual survival. The tragedy is in how much he loses, and how much his stunt costs those around him, in reaching this epiphany. I love characters like Mr. Fox, whose charm makes them frustrating to watch. He makes many big mistakes as a friend, a father and a husband, but his enjoyable personality fosters a desire for his growth. Though his redemption is well-earned, I find the rather melancholy ending satisfying, because it acknowledges that his actions have permanent consequences.
His simultaneous Clooney charm and sensitive core reflects the qualities that make Fantastic Mr. Fox an evergreen animated classic. It’s effortless in its ability to politely worm into your imagination, softly rapping on the door to your hippocampus looking for a place to stay in your memory. Just like Bean’s alcoholic cider, “it burns in your throat, boils in your stomach and tastes almost exactly like pure melted gold” … “almost exactly” being the key phrase.