The Best Movie You Never Saw: Fantastic Mr. Fox
Welcome to The Best Movie You NEVER Saw, a column dedicated to examining films that have flown under the radar or gained traction throughout the years, earning them a place as a cult classic or underrated gem that was either before it’s time or has aged like a fine wine.
An urban fox cannot resist returning to his wild-animal nature, raiding the farms of three prominent farmers, causing a retaliation against the entire animal population. The fox must find a way to save his community, while mending the relationships with his family and coming to terms with his own mortality.
Filmmaker Wes Anderson teamed with screenwriter Noah Baumbach to adapt the classic story written by Roald Dahl (CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH) and rounded up a stellar cast, including George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Michael Gambon, Willem Dafoe, and Owen Wilson.
A devout fan of author Roald Dahl and stop-motion animation, director Wes Anderson teamed up with screenwriter pal Noah Baumbach to craft an animated tale based on FANTASTIC MR. FOX, which coincidentally was the first book Anderson ever owned. The indie director wanted to capture the spirit of the old stop-motion animated films of his youth and craft a tale that retained the integrity and wit of Dahl’s novel, while adding his own signature touch (which included a first and third act).
The project was originally set to be directed by Henry Selick (THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS), but he later dropped out to work on CORALINE, another stop-motion project (although he continued to advise Anderson throughout the production). Anderson immersed himself in Dahl’s world, writing the film on the author’s estate, where he incorporated everything from locations, sets, costumes, and characters, making it as “Dahl-like” as possible. The dialogue was recorded at a farmhouse in Connecticut in order to retain a natural feel to the audio, capturing it in various locations: the forest, the attic, underground, etc. In addition to taking great pains with the audio, Anderson shot the film at 12 frames per second in order to highlight the stop-motion animation and shot using a Nikon D3, which offers a significantly higher resolution than even that of full High Definition (And it looks amazing in blu-ray).
FANTASTIC MR. FOX was released in November 2009, making a worldwide total of $46 million from a $40 million budget. By animation standards this is a big flop, even with a modest budget in comparison to the larger scale animated pics. Critical reviews were exceptionally good, but the film failed to connect with audiences in theaters. It has since started to gain a small cult following, especially with stop-motion animation enthusiasts.
WHY IT’S GREAT:
Let’s get the inevitable “I hate Wes Anderson” stuff out of the way to start. If you hate his work, there’s very little here to convince you otherwise. Some people just don’t dig his style, commonly referring to him as an indie hipster. Whatever. You could label just about every director as one thing or another based on their style (or lack thereof). I’m a huge fan, so take my bias for what it’s worth. That said, I don’t love every one of his films and I certainly have an order of favorites and FANTASTIC MR. FOX sits at the top of the heap, which is a tough choice given my affinity for RUSHMORE, THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, and THE LIFE AQUATIC.
Now, onto the film. FANTASTIC MR. FOX is an amazing achievement in stop-motion animation and not because it’s necessarily groundbreaking, but because it’s wonderfully nostalgic to the medium, paying attention to every small detail you can imagine, right down to the purposeful imperfections. The story, like many of Anderson’s films, revolves around family, but has a deeper meaning underneath, which ultimately is about mortality and survival. In many ways this is a film too deep for young children, yet appeals to them just the same. To me, it's the best kid's film that’s not really for kids.
As a kid, I grew up watching Jim Hensen’s Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas over-and-over again. I was fascinated by the level of detail they put into the sets and wanted nothing more than to live in those worlds. It’s so rare that a film makes you want to do that (save for those troubled folks who need therapy because of their desire to live in AVATAR’s Pandora). Watching FANTASTIC MR. FOX is like being transported back to Emmet Otter’s world again, times a thousand. The detail is astounding and it gets me all goose-pimpled with nostalgia each and every time I see it.
“When I saw the movie…it was a bizarre experience, because I had seen what the puppets were gonna look like. I’d seen them in real life. And I had recorded my voice part for it, but, still, when the lights went down and the movie came up it was like one of the most mesmerizing and weird experiences of my whole life. It was just so beautiful. There’s nothing really like this movie I feel like…and it’s unusual and unique amongst other stop motion movies I feel like, too…” – Jason Schwartzman (Ash)
George Clooney voices Mr. Fox with all the charm, resonance, and character that you’d expect from the actor. He makes Mr. Fox come alive, flaws and all. Meryl Streep as Mrs. Fox is quiet, hurt, and stern as the spouse who can’t figure out why her husband can’t just be happy with what he has in life. Jason Schwartzman is an absolute blast as their kid, Ash, a “different” fox who wants nothing more than the approval of his dad, who seems to favor his nephew, Kristofferson, over his own son. Bill Murray as Badger, Mr. Fox’s attorney and Wallace Wolodarsky as Kylie, the awkward opposum are perfectly cast, as is Michael Gambon as the villainous Mr. Bean, who unleashes his full fury on the Fox family, and Willem Dafoe as Rat, the hired “muscle” that serves Bean simply for his famed cider.
The fairly simple story involves Mr. Fox, in the throes of a mid-life crisis, setting out to steal food from the three biggest local farmers, Boggis, Bunce, and Bean under the guise of supplying his family with food. In doing so, Mr. Fox taps into his primal urge to hunt and kill, or to simply “do as foxes do.” It’s a central theme that runs throughout the film, which is acknowledging our natural desires, but also realizing how to come to terms with them in order to ensure your own survival. For Mr. Fox, his own desires end up putting the entire animal population in jeopardy, not to mention his own family’s lives.
There are plenty of quirky moments (including the use of the word “cuss” in place of actual profanity), as in most of Anderson’s films, but they never feel forced or pretentious. They fit perfectly within the confines of the story, which is an anthropomorphic world that blends perfectly into the “real” one. It’s clever in that way, as they bounce from Mr. Bean hunting Mr. Fox with a shotgun to Mr. Bean conducting a hostage negotiation with a ransom note. Both worlds exist without question and it’s a fun suspension of disbelief for the setting.
"It’s an animated movie, y’know, you can say well ‘parents can like it or kids can like it,” but I think, I mean, I like it, and I’m both, y’know? I felt completely comfortable in this movie. I can laugh at everything and I see the intention of the story, and the power of the emotions, and I enjoy the silliness of it, and the whimsy of it, and you cannot deny this sort of magic that is the work” – Bill Murray
The film is seeped in the oranges, browns, and yellows of the autumn season and it remains consistently so throughout. It’s consistently gorgeous and atmospheric and each and every time I watch the film it makes me yearn for the season to approach. Like most stop-motion animation films, the color and atmosphere play a tremendous role, almost like a character in itself, and it works beautifully here. The score by Alexandre Desplat is a whimsical joy and the song selection, as usual for Anderson, is great, featuring music by The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones, and Burl Ives, which fit the mood of the film every bit as much as the visuals.
FANTASTIC MR. FOX is a grown-up tale disguised as a kid’s movie, but it’s really not as simple as either. It has plenty to offer all ages, but allows each demographic to find their own meaning, which is not something you can do with every "kids" movie. It also doesn’t get too serious or bogged down that it can’t have any fun. There’s plenty to laugh at and thankfully none of it comes down to fart and booger jokes. Some people may be put off with calling a film like this sophisticated, but they shouldn’t be. It’s sophisticated only in that it has something to say rather than just to steal children’s brains away for 90 minutes.
Love or hate Anderson, there’s no denying that a massive amount of love and passion was poured into FANTASTIC MR. FOX. It shows in every frame. From the animators to the art crew to the music department to the cast and to Anderson himself, the dedication and excitement to tell this tale are on full display.
“It’s just basically a children’s film as a rating that it has to be kept within. But other than thinking of it that way at the beginning, I don’t really think we ever particularly thought of it that way as we went along. We just tried to do whatever we liked, whatever we thought would make the best movie in general. So I think it wasn’t directed exactly at children. We were just trying to make it seem like Roald Dahl. We were trying to imagine what Roald Dahl might have, how he might have done it. So it’s our version of that I guess.” – Wes Anderson
This is a film that saturates your eyeballs with imagery so it’s very hard to choose any one scene as THE scene. However, one scene I feel encapsulates the entire film (as does Anderson) is the one where Mr. Fox, Kylie, Kristofferson, and Ash see The Wolf in the distance and communicate with him. It's the perfect picture of the duality of civilization and wilderness, which is Mr. Fox's greatest struggle. It's the moment where he kind of accepts his fate, in a way, as just seeing that a wild animal still exists is enough to fulfill him. Kind of deep for a kid's movie, eh? Here's a short bite from the scene:
“I feel like it’s the climax of the movie, for some reason. And, that ended up being kind of what it was all about, for me, anyway. This sort of guy in corduroy that doesn’t want to lose contact with his wildness…” – Wes Anderson
"Wes is a hard taskmaster. When you work with somebody who's really, really good, they generally do drive you mad. But it's worth it. I think Roald would have loved it. I can hear him quietly laughing as we watched it. We've had two full screenings now [in 2009] with various members of the family, and there's a very wide range of ages in the family, and they've all loved it. One of my grandsons, who's 13, hit the nail on the head: somebody asked him, "Do you think children will like this?" And he turned round and said, "Well, they'll be pretty boring if they don't."' - Felicity Dahl (Roald Dahl's widow)
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