Fantastic Mr. Fox

The Flower demanded to be taken to a movie, having decided last week that this week was going to be the very best of her life. (To date, people. Don’t get morbid on me.) She wanted to see Planet 51, which her girlfriend had seen and liked, while I was trying to steer her to the Uncanny Valley that isthe new A Christmas Carol retelling. I didn’t really want to see either, but I had somewhat higher hopes for the latter.

But then The Fantastic Mr. Fox came out.

Roald Dahl is extremely popular around here, owing to my love of him as a child. Danny, The Champion of the World was and remains one of my favorite stories of all time. I’ve read all of Dahl’s children’s works out loud to the kids (in succession) and so far all have been hits.

I’m fairly confident Dahl would have absolutely hated this movie.Which isn’t to say it’s a bad movie or that one won’t or shouldn’t enjoy it. (He hated the original Wonka movie, too, and while I totally understand, I still like that movie. I’m pretty sure he would’ve hated the remake even more.)

But this isn’t a Roald Dahl movie, it’s a Wes Anderson movie. Now, I’m not sure where this trend of quirky, arty directors making children’s movies started, nor why, but the one thing that is for certain is that you can’t really get a good read on how good or bad such a movie is going to be from the reviews. Auteurs have rabid fans and adoring critics.

So, just as I’m unlikely to consider Where The Wild Things Are an 8/10, as IMDB would have it because of my general uneasiness about Spike Jonze, you should be aware that this is, first and foremost a Wes Anderson movie. If you don’t like Anderson, you won’t like this movie.

Because this is exactly like his other movies, only filmed in stop-motion animation. Same cast. Same blocking. Same shots. Same character conflicts. Same characters. Same music. Same pacing.

I kind of like Wes Anderson. I like the quirkiness of Rushmore, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou and The Darjeeling Limited. At the same time, I’m having a hard time imagining someone saying, “Yeah, this guy would be perfect for making a children’s movie.”

Let me dissect the experience for you a bit. The movie is stop-motion animation, as mentioned. But it reminds less of slick productions like Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline, and a little more of Aardman productions like Night of the Were-Rabbitand Chicken Run. But the animation doesn’t rise to that level of warmth, even of the fake-stop-motion of Flushed Away.

We’re not talking Rankin-Bass holiday special cheap, or anything like that. But it’s a little jarring at first. I got used to it fairly quickly, but even at the end found Mr. Fox’s full body shots ugly and lacking in mass. (Bad CGI makes everything look weightless. But almost all stop-motion has the same issue of looking like very light dolls being moved around. Which of course is what’s going on.)

But, okay. Low budget’s never been a problem here.

So, right off the bat you have George Clooney as Mr. Fox, which is how I would’ve cast it. Except I would have liked to see him do a little voice instead of just using the same voice he always uses. Something more Cary Grant, as Mr. Fox is a dashing rogue.

I liked Mrs. Fox’s voice but never picked it out as Meryl Streep. Of course I recognized Bill Murray, too. But when I realized the son was Jason Schwarzman, I knew that all I had to do was figure out who Owen Wilson, Roman Coppola and Adrien Brody were playing.

Still, the voice acting is fine.

The music reminded me greatly of Darjeeling and it works very well here.

Anderson’s blocking and camera style are hit-and-miss for a children’s movie. The shot where he has one character far in front, and another behind you can’t see until the one behind leans out to say something—that’s a cute shot that works well. And his habit of running the camera over a large set with many rooms that show what various characters are doing at the same time is as effective here as it ever is.

But one of his most characteristic shots is just a tight close-up on a face. Often with a character looking forlorn. The animation isn’t quite up to it and it’s such an odd, static shot for a kids’ movie anyway.

All of this is sort of movie-geek stuff. As is noting all the influences of other movies (besides Anderson’s own). Most people aren’t going to notice or care much.

Less geeky, however, is noting that the Wes Anderson-ification of the story basically turns it around 180 degrees from the original. Anderson loves difficult parental figures who are more obsessed with their own grandeur than their progeny. But with the exception of Matilda, where parents are found in Dahl’s stories, they are doting, and generally do what they can to help their children build their self-esteem (through actual actions, of course).

So this story concerns the son’s inability to live up to his father’s ideals, while his father dotes on a visiting cousin.

No, really. That’s the emotional center of the movie. The movie’s Mr. Fox is far more neurotic and far less charming than the book’s Mr. Fox. Fox’s son takes out his frustration on the visiting cousin, also something Dahl would not have approved of. His good characters were good, and I’m sure the scene in the ’70s Wonka movie where Charlie and Grandpa Joe cheat is what pissed him off.

As much as it felt inappropriate to me, I’m sure this kind of nuance is responsible for some people gushing over the movie.

The other thing Dahl would’ve hated by the way, was the adult humor. I don’t mean sexual humor, but humor that was aimed squarely at the adults and designed to leave the kids scratching their heads. I don’t think this is Anderson trying to market his movie or anything, it’s just the way he works.

But Dahl insisted the secret to a good kid’s book was to enlist the children in a conspiracy against adults. That’s what he did. And the better adults in his books were the ones who could join in.

This might sound like I hated the movie myself, but I really didn’t. I thought it was okay. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a director imposing himself on a story; that’s what they do. (Although I would have preferred Burton not bring his daddy issues to Wonka.)

The kids? The Flower liked it okay, as did The Boy. The laughs were light but not infrequent. They weren’t enamored of the animation but they weren’t turned off by it either. If they were bugged at all by the mature-themed plot points, they didn’t mention it.

But they weren’t blown away by a long shot. For some reason, I’m thinking of the ultimate reviewer’s line “People who like this sort of thing will find that this is the sort of thing they’ll like.”

The thing about a movie like this, if you do go see it and you don’t know where you stand vis-a-vis wes Anderson, is to remember to ignore the gushing. Reviews have been ridiculously positive for this movie. Families are going to love it! It’s better than Pixar!

In reality, it’s a modest, quirky film made on a modest quirky budget. I suspect it won’t do very well at all, frankly. But it can be enjoyable—if you like this sort of thing.

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