Visually and conceptually, Fantastic Mr. Fox doesn’t remotely resemble anything Wes Anderson has tackled before: It’s a manic kids’ movie, it’s stop-motion animated, and it’s his first film based on an outside source—a minor story by Charlie And The Chocolate Factory author Roald Dahl. But if viewers close their eyes even for a moment, they’ll immediately know they’re in a Wes Anderson movie. Quirky musical choices abound: Burl Ives and the love theme from Disney’s animated Robin Hood feature prominently. Anderson favorites like Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, and Bill Murray turn up. The humor is painfully reserved and wry, brought across via idiosyncratic rhythms, awkward pauses, and dialed-down performances. Tonally, it’s indistinguishable from films like The Darjeeling Limited and The Life Aquatic. Anderson fans may actually find the busy, quirky visuals distracting, as if they were trying to listen to a familiar album while watching an unfamiliar TV show.
The animation (helmed by The PJs’ Mark Gustafson) is almost more distraction than boon. It’s distinctive, with rich colors and a vast wealth of detail, including visual jokes for the sharp-eyed. It’s also awkward and clunky, with anthropomorphic animal characters that move exactly like the rigid dolls they are, down to their stiff, perpetually shifting fake fur. Given the state of the art, as seen earlier this year in Coraline (whose director, Henry Selick, was briefly attached to this film), Fantastic Mr. Fox looks like a throwback to the Rankin-Bass holiday specials of the ’60s and ’70s. It may be deliberately retro, but it still looks clumsy.
And who knows what kids will make of the story. Dahl’s short book is a simple adventure about a vain fox at war with three grumpy farmers. The film version, co-scripted by Anderson and The Squid And The Whale’s Noah Baumbach, keeps the story but expands it with complicated familial conflicts. Disappointment, jealousy, and frustration seethes between Mr. and Mrs. Fox (George Clooney and Meryl Streep), their weird, hateful son (Jason Schwartzman), and his irritatingly perfect cousin (Eric Chase Anderson). As with all things Anderson, the emotions are large but mostly kept buttoned down under snark, swagger, and fast-moving chatter that will probably go over kids’ heads. But then, this is no more a kids’ movie for kids than Where The Wild Things are; it’s a film strictly for Wes Anderson fans of all ages. By now, they should know who they are.