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Fantastic Mr. Fox

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Fantastic 'Mr. Fox'? Indeed!
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies

The news that Wes Anderson, the custom-tailored arch auteur of urban awkwardness and fractured family in films like "Rushmore" and "The Royal Tenenbaums," would be adapting a stop-motion animated adaptation of Roald Dahl's children's saga "The Fantastic Mr. Fox" sounded, at first, crazy ... And yet, as any movie fan knows, that phrase is occasionally followed by the modifier " ... Crazy enough to work!" And it turns out that "Fantastic Mr. Fox " is crazy enough to work, and smart enough to work, and works superbly. Anderson pulls off an impressive juggling act combining stop-motion whimsy, the frantic pace of a crime film (think "Ocean's 11" dipped in fur), dry-but-warm wit and rich and real comedy about family and wanting to be loved for who we are -- plus the delight of stealing vast quantities of chicken, cider and squab. Cool, clever, crafty and delirious amounts of fun, "Fantastic Mr. Fox" is full of brilliant visual invention and silly slapstick while also having hip humor and sly smarts -- it's pure movie-going joy and a rare kind of pleasure. I think there's enough frantic activity and silly sight gags to keep kids entertained by "Fantastic Mr. Fox" but, bluntly, as I sat loving every meticulous, daffy moment of it, that was the last thing on my mind.

In the English countryside, Mr. Fox (George Clooney) was a devil-may-care food thief and man-about-glen, but a close scrape alongside the lovely Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) made him promise her he'd give up the life of crime. Now, he's a father to his son Ash (Jason Schwartzman), dedicated husband and a columnist for the local paper ... and he wants more. Mr. Fox decides to move the family into a new home and rob local industrial farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean ("One fat, one short, one lean," as the sing-song music cue you'll be humming for weeks explains), as he tries to keep Mrs. Fox in the dark and welcomes in his nephew Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson), whose father is ill. Mr. Fox is going to be busy, even with odd opossum handyman Kylie (Wallace Wolodarksy) reluctantly recruited as his second-in-command ...

The stop-motion animation in "Fantastic Mr. Fox" is amazing -- but never in a showy or clumsy look-at-me-way. The amusing realization for me was that in 'Fantastic Mr. Fox," things that occasionally drive me crazy about Anderson's style -- the meticulous design, the focus on textures, the elaborate set construction -- are all poured perfectly into serving a stop-motion story; vices transformed into virtues. After the hatefully airless, phony, dollhouse unreal feel of "The Life Aquatic," Anderson surprised us by getting his style more into the real world with "The Darjeeling Limited." With "Fantastic Mr. Fox," he's left the real world entirely and has crafted a delight. The voice cast is perfect as well, whether softly speaking true feelings or loudly declaiming grandiose pronouncements.

"Fantastic Mr. Fox" is not shy about life in the state of nature, which now and then makes for hilarious comedy, like when an argument between Fox and his lawyer Badger (Bill Murray)  "are you cussing at me?" -- descends into snapping and hissing, or as the Foxes and friends sit down to elegant china plates and then snap and flail at the meals set before them. But Anderson's script adaptation, written with Noah Baumbach ("The Squid and the Whale"), mixes these big broad moments and hair's-breadth escapes with dry deadpan moments and scenes of real emotion. When Boggis, Bunce and Bean strike back and Mrs. Fox asks why he's put everything at risk, Mr. Fox can only speak the truth: "Because I'm a wild animal." And while they fill the film with familiar touches -- the fur-covered Foxes are much like the Tenenbaums or any other Anderson family -- the animals around the Foxes make a community as full and rich as any in "Rushmore" or "Bottle Rocket" and they also keep the pastoral playful British feel of Dahl's work, too.

Animation director Marc Gustafson does an incredible job, delivering delightful stop-motion, executed with what seems a minimum of CGI trickery, and constantly in the service of the story. Production designer Nelson Lowry also earns high marks for creating a detailed, whimsical world with heart. (I could look at the painting in Badger's office of heroic, uniformed badgers waiting for something ad infinitum, while a moment where Ash and a sad Kristofferson bond and pause after lights-out in the light of Ash's train set -- two miniature wonders watching a miniature wonder -- is a thing of softly-hushed sincere feeling.) "Fantastic Mr. Fox" is full of invention, craft and beauty and clever cool, but it's also got heart and something like humanity as these wild things struggle to exist, love, be and live. No, Anderson's filmography didn't suggest he was capable of something this brilliantly bizarre and perfectly pleasing -- and that surprise, the first of many in this amazing movie, merely makes the end result all the more fantastic.

James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine.

The news that Wes Anderson, the custom-tailored arch auteur of urban awkwardness and fractured family in films like "Rushmore" and "The Royal Tenenbaums," would be adapting a stop-motion animated adaptation of Roald Dahl's children's saga "The Fantastic Mr. Fox" sounded, at first, crazy ... And yet, as any movie fan knows, that phrase is occasionally followed by the modifier " ... Crazy enough to work!" And it turns out that "Fantastic Mr. Fox " is crazy enough to work, and smart enough to work, and works superbly. Anderson pulls off an impressive juggling act combining stop-motion whimsy, the frantic pace of a crime film (think "Ocean's 11" dipped in fur), dry-but-warm wit and rich and real comedy about family and wanting to be loved for who we are -- plus the delight of stealing vast quantities of chicken, cider and squab. Cool, clever, crafty and delirious amounts of fun, "Fantastic Mr. Fox" is full of brilliant visual invention and silly slapstick while also having hip humor and sly smarts -- it's pure movie-going joy and a rare kind of pleasure. I think there's enough frantic activity and silly sight gags to keep kids entertained by "Fantastic Mr. Fox" but, bluntly, as I sat loving every meticulous, daffy moment of it, that was the last thing on my mind.

In the English countryside, Mr. Fox (George Clooney) was a devil-may-care food thief and man-about-glen, but a close scrape alongside the lovely Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) made him promise her he'd give up the life of crime. Now, he's a father to his son Ash (Jason Schwartzman), dedicated husband and a columnist for the local paper ... and he wants more. Mr. Fox decides to move the family into a new home and rob local industrial farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean ("One fat, one short, one lean," as the sing-song music cue you'll be humming for weeks explains), as he tries to keep Mrs. Fox in the dark and welcomes in his nephew Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson), whose father is ill. Mr. Fox is going to be busy, even with odd opossum handyman Kylie (Wallace Wolodarksy) reluctantly recruited as his second-in-command ...

The stop-motion animation in "Fantastic Mr. Fox" is amazing -- but never in a showy or clumsy look-at-me-way. The amusing realization for me was that in 'Fantastic Mr. Fox," things that occasionally drive me crazy about Anderson's style -- the meticulous design, the focus on textures, the elaborate set construction -- are all poured perfectly into serving a stop-motion story; vices transformed into virtues. After the hatefully airless, phony, dollhouse unreal feel of "The Life Aquatic," Anderson surprised us by getting his style more into the real world with "The Darjeeling Limited." With "Fantastic Mr. Fox," he's left the real world entirely and has crafted a delight. The voice cast is perfect as well, whether softly speaking true feelings or loudly declaiming grandiose pronouncements.

"Fantastic Mr. Fox" is not shy about life in the state of nature, which now and then makes for hilarious comedy, like when an argument between Fox and his lawyer Badger (Bill Murray)  "are you cussing at me?" -- descends into snapping and hissing, or as the Foxes and friends sit down to elegant china plates and then snap and flail at the meals set before them. But Anderson's script adaptation, written with Noah Baumbach ("The Squid and the Whale"), mixes these big broad moments and hair's-breadth escapes with dry deadpan moments and scenes of real emotion. When Boggis, Bunce and Bean strike back and Mrs. Fox asks why he's put everything at risk, Mr. Fox can only speak the truth: "Because I'm a wild animal." And while they fill the film with familiar touches -- the fur-covered Foxes are much like the Tenenbaums or any other Anderson family -- the animals around the Foxes make a community as full and rich as any in "Rushmore" or "Bottle Rocket" and they also keep the pastoral playful British feel of Dahl's work, too.

Animation director Marc Gustafson does an incredible job, delivering delightful stop-motion, executed with what seems a minimum of CGI trickery, and constantly in the service of the story. Production designer Nelson Lowry also earns high marks for creating a detailed, whimsical world with heart. (I could look at the painting in Badger's office of heroic, uniformed badgers waiting for something ad infinitum, while a moment where Ash and a sad Kristofferson bond and pause after lights-out in the light of Ash's train set -- two miniature wonders watching a miniature wonder -- is a thing of softly-hushed sincere feeling.) "Fantastic Mr. Fox" is full of invention, craft and beauty and clever cool, but it's also got heart and something like humanity as these wild things struggle to exist, love, be and live. No, Anderson's filmography didn't suggest he was capable of something this brilliantly bizarre and perfectly pleasing -- and that surprise, the first of many in this amazing movie, merely makes the end result all the more fantastic.

James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine.

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