Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

Director: Wes Anderson
Stars: George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Owen Wilson, Bill Murray
Running Time: 87 minutes

Wes Anderson’s films are very hit-and-miss with me, in part because he tries very hard not to make the same movie over and over, for which I thank him. I’m always a little amazed at how generally well his films do considering they have a distinctly “indie/art house” air to them; he’s the kid who somehow gets to make largely uncompromised movies on the studio’s dime, never having a megahit but always paying off the investors sufficiently that he gets to make another one. In some ways, he’s this generation’s Woody Allen.

So I have my reasons for wanting to like what I see from him, and by and large I have — although he’s very rarely moved me to be terribly enthusiastic. Such is also the case with his latest movie, Fantastic Mr. Fox — or as I call it, Not At All Bad Mr. Fox. I enjoyed it, not least because it certainly doesn’t look like any other movie on the screen this year — but it didn’t thrill me all that much, and I was a little disappointed to find the well-remembered Roald Dahl book quite tinkered with.

Still, it’s important to remember that I’m not the target audience for this — it’s a kid’s movie based on a kid’s book, and on that level I think the film works pretty well. I hope it inspires kids to read more Roald Dahl. The all-hand-done, stop-motion animation is a really nice change from the surplus of 3-D computer animation we’ve gotten, and although it uses the same technique as the Wallace & Gromit series it does have a distinct look and “feel” (what Ebert would call “texture”). The story works out pretty well despite Anderson’s (unnecessary) addition of a sub-plot and character that don’t end up making a big impression. As a children’s movie, I can recommend it at least as much as the book.

I can’t help but be disappointed by two key decisions, the first of which I’ve already alluded to: Anderson’s decision to (literally) wedge in a “young men who are rivals then bond” subplot that doesn’t actually go anywhere unexpected and seems to exist solely to “mark his territory” in the movie. The second mistake (in my opinion) was casting George Clooney as the lead. Certainly Mr. Fox is a smug sonofabitch and Clooney is terribly good at playing that sort of character, but there’s a reason why Mr. Clooney isn’t constantly swamped with voice work: it’s because he’s not a voice actor. A voice actor is someone who has great range in his voice and can hide, exaggerate his audible personality and usual range with aplomb. Clooney either can’t do this or was directed not to, which means you spend the entire movie looking at Mr. Fox but hearing (very obviously) George Clooney, which hurts the suspension of disbelief.

By contrast, Meryl Streep (who plays Mrs. Fox) is unrecognisable till the end credits (in part because the role is rather beneath her, quite frankly), as is Willem Dafoe. Even Owen Wilson, who sports a pretty recognisable voice and is of course to be expected to appear in every Wes Anderson film any more, manages to inject some actual character into his role. Not George — he just puts on that smug tone he employs in every Oceans movie and phones it in from there.

The aforementioned subplot is Anderson’s weakness — he just has to find a way to stick in some non-conformist dork character who refuses to stop being a odd little twerp, but at the exact same time longs to be accepted by the mainstream. To give Mr. Fox’s son Ash that title, it was necessary to invent a foil who starts off as a rival but then ends up as a friend, thus the invention of Ash’s “cousin” Kristofferson (what an original name!). Kristofferson is “acceptably odd” with his meditation and his quiet nature, versus Ash’s “unacceptable” lack of physicality and grace (bad qualities for a fox, I’m sure you’ll agree). Everyone else in the film is endearingly (but acceptably!) odd as well, except strangely enough for Mrs. Fox, an artist who just comes off stupid and rather gullible in the film.

The film diverges from the book in an number of important ways, some sensible and some insensible. In the movie, Mr. Fox is an expert thief who steals (primarily) chickens and such from the three local farmers just for the fun of it. In the book, he does this to feed his family (as every fox does). In the book, Mr. Fox has four children; in the movie, his “reformation” from a chicken thief to a newspaper columnist (who presumably now pays for food? It’s never explained) is brought on by a close escape and the revelation that his wife is pregnant (with their one son Ash).

Twelve years later (in fox years, a delightful invention that pops up periodically), Ash is feeling his oats again and conspires with the super of his tree-home, the opossum Kylie to start pulling heists of chicken, ducks, geese, turkeys and alcoholic cider. Mrs. Fox is extremely slow to notice. Mr. Fox’s thefts lead to a war of attrition with the mean old farmers, who use increasingly strong methods to try and flush Mr. Fox out, displacing all the other animals in the nearby land. Eventually, the Fox family as well as the the Badgers, rats and other animals are forced very far underground and are in danger of starving. Amazingly, the animals (including most incredibly Mrs. Fox) get only mildly annoyed with Mr. Fox for getting them all into this mess when everything was perfectly fine before by nothing more than his sheer avarice and lack of willpower. He is quickly forgiven, however, when he comes up with a plan to dig into the farmers’ storehouses while they are distracted by trying to flush him out.

From here, the rest of the film is largely a Roadrunner cartoon in stop-motion; the farmers try something, Fox miraculously figures out a way to outsmart them. Repeat. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. In the book, Mr. Fox takes some responsibility for his actions, and his plans are borne of a sense of guilt about what has happened to the other animals while he was just trying to feed his own family. In the film, you never get that; you get instead an arrogant prick with no real willpower who takes more than he needs, gets into entirely predictable trouble, but manages to weasel (heh) his way out of one self-created jam after another, aided by enabling co-dependents. I was almost rooting for the farmers by the end of it …

I read somewhere that during pre-production, Henry Selick (James and the Giant Peach, Nightmare Before Christmas, Coraline) was going to be involved, and you have to wonder how that would have turned out, but in some way the art direction on this (done without him) is one of the things that really shines; a few scenes don’t quite “look right,” but that’s part of the charm of hand-made stop-motion.

In 10 or 20 years when nobody remembers George Clooney, this film will be seen for what it actually is; a charming, perhaps a little sloppy, but ultimately human adaptation of Dahl’s story of “wild animals” in a refreshing style that’s enjoyed by children (there were a fair number of laughs at the screening I went to, which had a healthy kid contingent).

At the moment, however, (particularly with Clooney being in every third film out in 2009), the film seems more like an animated version of that funny Captain Kirk “motivational poster” going around the net that says “I’m sorry, I can’t hear you over the sound of how awesome I am.” I can’t help but think that sticking a little closer to the book and using a better vocal actor for Mr. Fox would have made the film a classic.

The 1st Annual (Almost) Totally Blind Oscar™ Predictions!

POST-AWARDS UPDATE: Well that went well … I finished the evening with a 12-4 record, my best ever score. Turns out you can predict the Oscars by just watching the machinations of the hype machine! And here I’ve been wasting all this time actually watching the films. Lesson learned! 🙂

I’m actually shocked at how few films I’ve seen this year, but my usual film employer spent the last few months being bought and then rebuilding, so I didn’t get to see my usual 50-70 or so movies this year (unless you count Turner Classic Movies!). I did go out and see some films in cinema that personally interested me, but by that count this was an off year; there are some films out now that I would like to take in (and probably will over time), but very few I absolutely had to see. Of the nominees listed, I actually did see Up, Julie & Julia, Star Trek, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

Thus, I’m in a good position to make Academy Award predictions, because I can go by almost nothing but the hype. I’m not even going to read Ebert’s predictions this year. I feel this frees me from the slavery of actually having to watch these films, at least some of which I might not enjoy, and allows me to discover the zen of pure movie criticism. I learned that from Helmut Spargle.

So, with a few measly drops of LSD and my critic’s intuition, I’ll stake my claims today, and find out how well I did tomorrow. Glory or shame will be mine!

Original Song: “The Weary Kind” from Crazy Heart. Because Hollywood wants you to know they love country music too. Yeah right.

Original Score: I will be pulling for Michael Giacchino for Up, but I actually think it will go to Avatar (James Horner). Nope, Giacchino won. I’m happy to be wrong on this one.

Sound Editing: This will be The Hurt Locker’s first of many Oscars.

Sound Mixing: I actually think Star Trek should get this one, as this is one area where I thought the film hung together (since it didn’t in terms of plot, continuity, direction or design …), but it will probably go to Avatar. Got it for sound editing, missed it for this one, it was The Hurt Locker again. Riff-Raff lookin’ good!

Cinematography: My bet is on Avatar for this one, which is a shame because computer-generated pictures shouldn’t be eligible for cinematography awards. It really ought to go to Inglorious Basterds.

Art Direction: Unless the Academy is feeling extraordinarily ornery, this will go to Avatar as well.

Animated Feature Film: For no reason I can make out, the Academy hates Pixar (probably because they are a clique), nevertheless I will be like Charlie Brown and kick the ball for Pixar’s Up. But if I’m right about the Academy, expect it to go to Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Original Screenplay: Well, Tarentino’s out of this one, since Inglorious Basterds is about as original as an episode of Hogan’s Heroes; Up won’t get it because the Academy hates Pixar; and The Hurt Locker won’t get it because there have been charges that the story is stolen. That leaves  The Messenger and A Serious Man. From what little I know of these two films, I’m going with the Coen Brothers on this one. Dang it, missed this one. It was The Hurt Locker yet again.

Adapted Screenplay: Precious. That is all.

Foreign Language Film: Based completely on wild-assed guessing, I’ll pick The White Ribbon (Germany). Nope, it was the Argentinian film El Secreto de sus Ono.

Directing: Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker, though perhaps we’ll get an upset win with Lee Daniels for Precious — he certainly seems to be able to pull performances out of actors that other directors can’t get.

Supporting Actress: Mo’nique, Precious.

Supporting Actor: It’s between Christopher Plummer for The Last Station and Christoph Waltz for Inglorious Basterds. I’ll be rooting for Plummer, but my gut says headline writers everywhere have already got it: “Christoph WALTZES Away With Award,” har-de-har-har.

Actress: I would love to see a total newcomer like Carey Mulligan or Gabourney Sidibe win it, but nah, it’ll be either Meryl Streep or Sandra Bullock. My guess: Sandra, even though Streep was actually much better. I personally thought Julie & Julia was awful (well, the Julie part anyway), but Streep was absolutely amazing as Julia Child, whereas Sandra Bullock is being rewarded for taking a risk outside her comfort zone (but wasn’t actually at all convincing IMHO). If Gabourney Sidibe pulls an upset, that will be the big story of the night.

Actor: I actually think Jeff Bridges could pull an surprise here.

Best Picture: Everyone thinks it will be The Hurt Locker, and they’re probably right, but I’m going with Precious for the upset. I was half-right on this, so I’m counting it. 🙂

Whether I’m right, wrong or somewhere in-between, I will say this: 2009 was a good year for variety of stories in movies, even if a number of them weren’t to my taste. I can think of many years where the nominees for Best Picture were mostly dramas with a token comedy, but this year we have a real buffet of styles and stories to choose from. I’m also seeing a pleasing trend back towards what I’ll call “sophisticated adult fare” like Up in the Air, An Education, A Serious Man and A Single Man (among others).

And in my world, the first 10 minutes of Up would receive a special award for Perfection in Computer Animation — that sequence is a summation of every element of a film coming together.