Mr and Mrs Fox (George Clooney and Meryl Streep) live an idyllic home life with their son Ash (Jason Schwartzman) and visiting young nephew Kristopherson (Eric Anderson). But after 12 years, the bucolic existence proves too much for Mr Fox's wild animal instincts. Soon he slips back into his old ways as a sneaky chicken thief and in doing so, endangers not only his beloved family, but the whole animal community. Trapped underground and with not enough food to go around, the animals band together to fight against the evil Farmers, Boggis, Bunce and Bean, who are determined to capture the audacious, fantastic Mr Fox at any cost.
The great strength of director Wes Anderson is his eye for the eccentric and his ear for droll, naturalistic line delivery. It has served him well in all his films and he embraces it yet again, though to diminishing returns, in his adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox.
From his calling-card film, Bottle Rocket (1996), to his sublime masterworks Rushmore (1998) and The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), Anderson’s unique filmic rhythms and stylised visuals saw him revered as the leader of a new troupe of filmmakers, all of whom promised a great deal – Charlie Kaufman, Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, Sophia Coppola.
But the wheels wobbled when Anderson was given big-budget freedom on The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) and his last film, The Darjeeling Limited (2007), was mostly seen as a failed effort to recapture the essence of his earlier work. He was labelled a 'one-trick pony’; his trademark – an ensemble of subtly wacky characters – had grown tiresome. As his contemporaries pushed themselves creatively (with varying degrees of success), what was once the unthinkable happened to Wes Anderson – he stagnated.
This makes his decision to expand a beloved children’s book and tackle it as a stop-motion animation feature, a bold step forward for the director. It is not the first time he has imbued life to puppet-like characters – Jason Schwartzman’s Max Fischer in Rushmore staged insightful dramas at the end of strings that were crucial to Anderson’s themes. But the all-encompassing world that Anderson needed to create for Fantastic Mr Fox has tangibly recharged his visual batteries; unfortunately, not so re-energised are his narrative ones.
Mr. Fox (George Clooney) is having a trouble coming to terms with his responsibilities in life. A master chicken-thief, he is forced into a life of 9-to-5 drudgery to please his loving wife, Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) and to provide for his son, Kylie (Wallace Wolodarsky) and nephew, Kristofferson (Eric Anderson). The urge to make one last big score proves too great and he enlists his new friend Ash (Jason Schwartzman) to help in a night raid of the nearby factory-farms owned by the ruthless businessmen Bean, Boggis and Bunce (Michael Gambon, Robin Hurlstone and Hugo Guinness, respectively).
Predictably, things go haywire and soon Mr Fox and his woodland friends, including Badger (Bill Murray), Linda Otter (Karen Duffy), Weasel (Anderson himself) and Field Mouse (Adrien Brody), are up to their furry necks in rabid beagles, rescue missions and teary reconciliations.
The most joyous and fully-realised aspects of Fantastic Mr Fox are its set design and colour palette. Cinematographer Tristan Oliver worked with the masters of the stop motion game, Nick Park’s Aardman Animation, on the Wallace & Gromit shorts and debut feature, Curse of The Were-Rabbit (2005); production designer Nelson Lowry was the art director on Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride (2005). Each brings a sure hand and distinctive style to which Anderson adheres, wisely. The voice casting adds to the warmth of the film, immeasurably: Clooney, riffing on his 'Danny Ocean – lovable criminal mastermind’ persona, captures Mr Fox’s zest for life wonderfully; Meryl Streep’s warm tones and, as Fox’s evil nemesis Rat, Willem Dafoe’s slithery delivery, are spot-on.
Anderson asks a lot of himself with the myriad cast of characters and increasingly-frantic plot. He needs to keep a lot of charming balls in the air to make the film work, and occasionally he fumbles – the ending drags and the cheeky sense of humour which enlivens the first half is gone by the second. The film will have a tough time holding the interest of the holidaying under-10s.
Anderson has proved with his past work that he can balance the needs of a large cast of off-centre personalities with tremendous skill. What is Fantastic Mr Fox if not an amalgam of Bottle Rocket’s criminal underdogs with the eccentric personalities of The Royal Tenenbaums? But his script, penned with the equally idiosyncratic Noah Baumbach (Margot at the Wedding, 2007; The Squid and the Whale, 2005), peaks then creaks. It is a sweet film with some lovable moments, but it will take a more ambitious role of the dice to restore Anderson to his former lofty status.