Movie Review: Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)


Quirky. That is the word I am looking for. In a good way.

Title: Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
Director: Wes Anderson
Voice Actors: George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, Michael Gambon, Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe, Eric Chase Anderson (and cameos by Owen Wilson, Brian Cox, Adrien Brody, and Mario Batali, the celebrity chef)
Score Composer: Alexandre Desplat, mainly; other songs featured range from the Beach Boys to Burl Ives, the Rolling Stones to Mozart.
Length: 87 minutes
Spoiler-free Synopsis: Gentleman thief Mr. Fox promises his wife he’ll quit the dangerous thieving lifestyle forever so they can settle down. But years later, frustrated with his boring job as a journalist and its low income, he secretly plans a daring heist against three notoriously-tough farmers. What he doesn’t count on is the rage with which they pursue him and his family for revenge… (not your typical kids’ plot, is it?)
Reason for Beginning: The premise and stop-motion animation intrigued me, and it played in high definition on TV.
Reason for Finishing: Absolutely delightful movie.
Rating (US): “PG for action, smoking and slang humor.” NB: the characters technically use profanity a number of times, but the curse words are replaced with the actual word “cuss,” which somehow is deemed inoffensive by the MPAA. It was a minor annoyance for me personally, but I wouldn’t show the movie to kids for that reason – it clearly displays the habit and style of profanity-laced speech while pretending to be a kids’ movie, and kids will imitate it. It’s the only thing I don’t like here, and is a move of incredible irresponsibility on the part of the filmmakers.
Movie Re-watchability: High, in my opinion. Pace is sharp and lively, as is the dialogue; the visual look of the film is gorgeous, with saturated colors and the feel of a great storybook come to life. Plot has many twists and turns, all interesting and fairly logical, and very fun. Mostly the film is very fun.
Director Re-watchability: Hard to say; this is the only Wes Anderson film I’ve seen, and from what I’ve read, each one is completely unlike the other. He’s got a neat sense of humor, though, and good attention to detail and character-development.
Recommendation: I recommend it; it’s rare when a movie manages this vibrancy of imagination and doesn’t begin to lose sight of its own characters. It’s fresh, it’s funny, and it’s got some surprisingly dramatic and emotional moments. I actually laughed and cheered throughout it!

Key Thoughts

Badger, Attorney at Law, and partner with Beaver & Beaver

If a studio ever wants to do a modern adaptation of The Wind in the Willows, they have the perfect director in Wes Anderson. He directs his stop-motion characters in Fantastic Mr. Fox with a deftness and droll humor reminiscent of the Wallace & Gromit series. The setting and design are similar enough: rural England, with animals who dress in human clothes, have human-like societies, and live in traditionally animal homes (caves, sewers, under trees) with modern interior design. Take for example this shot (above) of Badger, professionally dressed in his burrow-office. After business hours you half expect him to meet for tea with his friends Toad, Rat, and Mole from Kenneth Grahame’s book (which I know mostly by reputation and excerpts).

Fantastic Mr. Fox is quite different, though, and contains a surprising amount of references to other decidedly non-kiddie films. George Clooney and the scriptwriters playfully riff on his Ocean’s Eleven persona, and if you listen to the movie with your eyes closed you can easily imagine Danny Ocean planning the heists against the notorious farmers instead of Mr. Fox. Scenes featuring the villain Rat (voiced by Willem Dafoe sounding for all the world like John Turturro in O Brother, Where Art Thou?) are shot and scored like a Sergio Leone spaghetti Western, with repetitive guitar riffs, wavering flutes, and sometimes even the same operatic choir used to startlingly epic and emotional effect (UPDATE: here’s a song by Ennio Morricone for Sergio Leone’s “For a Few Dollars More” to compare with). One quote is lifted directly from 1966’s Rebel Without a Cause, Mr. Fox whistles exactly like Hawkeye Pierce in the movie M*A*S*H (1970), and in fact both Mr. and Mrs. Fox look almost exactly like the vulpine Robin and Maid Marian in Disney’s 1973 Robin Hood. Hmm, another gentleman thief connection…

Robin Hood
Mr. Fox

So I guess it’s not a coincidence that the score also contains this song from Robin Hood (1973).

"Born on a mountain top in Tennessee..."

What works most is the visual style of the film. The fur looks like you could reach out and touch it. The clouds look wonderfully water-colored. Smoke seems to be cleverly-animated gray pieces of paper that are both convincing as smoke and reminiscent of some brilliant artistic child’s school panorama. And then there are all the little character flourishes. Look at this picture of Mr. Fox reclining against a tree, casually playing with a wheat stalk in his teeth as he listens to “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” on his Walk-Song (a.k.a. a Walkman). Unusual for a stop-motion animated film, his face actually conveys real thought. For me, it actually managed to escape the infamous Uncanny Valley.

So, the story. It’s adapted from the Roald Dahl book of the same name, which I have not read. Mr. and Mrs. Fox are professional chicken-thieves, a profession that is considered legitimate among the animal society of the countryside, but which is violently resented by the human farmers. After a particularly close escape, Mrs. Fox reveals that she is pregnant and makes Mr. Fox give up chicken-thievery so they can settle down and raise a family. Skip 12 ½ fox-years (2 human years), and they’re living in a snug little cave with a son named Ash on the cusp of teenagerhood, who is temperamental, angsty because of his inability to live up to his dad’s suave legacy, and ambitious-beyond-his-means. This isn’t helped by the arrival of his cousin, Kristofferson, who is the same age as Ash but seems infinitely more agile, graceful, and intelligent…that is, more like Mr. Fox than Ash himself. Mr. Fox is annoyed that his job as a newspaper columnist isn’t more exciting or well-paying, so he moves the family to a nice tree-house, which just happens to be in view of three wealthy farms run by the three meanest farmers ever: Boggis, Bunce, and the cunning killer Mr. Bean.

Bean, Bunce, and Boggis

Without Mrs. Fox’s knowledge, Mr. Fox plans an epic three-part heist for each of their farms, stealing chickens, ducks, geese, vegetables, and Bean’s famous alcoholic apple cider, which is rumored to taste “like melted gold.” He’s spectacularly successful…so much so, that the farmers come after him with huge tractors, drills, assorted firearms, helicopters, and *GASP* TV news crews! Their destructive attacks and dedication to his demise put the whole animal community in severe danger. Mr. Fox is repeatedly rebuked for his lack of consideration and, from Mrs. Fox, his breaking of his solemn promise to her. Humbled a number of times, but determined to come out on top in the end, he does his best to rally the animals, and his struggling family, to withstand the farmers’ assaults.

I kind of like how the movie doesn’t go easy on its characters. Mr. and Mrs. Fox clearly love each other, but their marriage is tempestuous and troubled. Mr. Fox apologizes for lying to his wife and endangering their family and neighbors, but he protests that, in spite of his spiffy suit and the sophisticated human trappings they all live in, he is still at heart a wild animal. It’s in the nature of foxes to hunt and steal chickens, so that’s his true self. Mrs. Fox tells him flatly that she doesn’t care one whit for his “true self,” because his greater responsibility is as a husband and a father. Can he be both of these and a true fox at the same time?

This running argument calls attention to the essential fantastic nature of the movie itself, which is, of course, about animals who talk and dress like humans. It’s not quite breaking the fourth wall, but it’s almost as if Mr. Fox is asking the question of whether or not they really should be so human-like. Shortly before the climax he gives a rousing speech about the beautiful natural talents each of the animals has (not to mention their cool Latin names), such as the mole who can see in the dark, or the rabbit who can run faster than anyone else, or the badger who is a demolitions expert…(“Wait, what? Since when?” “Explosions! Fire everywhere!” “…Okay!”)…well, his argument begins to break down. Because ultimately, in a world such as this story belongs to, the human-like sides of the animals are simply more important than their wild sides. They can’t avoid them. When Mr. Fox does put his animal-friends to work for his final go-for-broke scheme, he doesn’t use their wild instincts, but their human-like talents.

In the end, Mrs. Fox is right. The emotions these characters feel are human emotions. Mr. Fox’s responsibilities are more than simply providing food and shelter for his wife and son, and he must labor to overcome his natural tendencies, which lead him astray. He is not a truly wild animal. A surprisingly beautiful confrontation with a very wild, majestic wolf highlights this. But it’s still satisfying that, upon reflection, Mr. Fox truly does live up to his wild legacy as the most stylish and cunning trickster of the animal-world. This may all sound like heavy stuff, but the movie is fast-paced and funny, and Mr. Fox as charming and clever as any Reynard. It’s a joy to watch him at work.

Other Films to Watch and Compare With

Disney’s Robin Hood (1973)
Where the Wild Things Are (2009) – similar kind of kids-movie-made-by-indie-director-for-adults
Ocean’s Eleven (2001)
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966)

Other Reviews
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times
David Edelstein of New York
Todd McCarthy of Variety magazine
James Berardinelli of Reelviews.net

Trivialities
A final word on the soundtrack. As amazingly eclectic as it is, the music producers left out one bewilderingly obvious choice: Fleet Foxes!  I mean, come on, not only is their name perfect, but their atmospheric indie folk sound would perfectly complement the story and the other songs. Even the music video for Fleet Foxes’ “White Winter Hymnal” is stop-motion and the song has exactly the right kind of sound for the movie, going by its own soundtrack. Check it out:

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Author: David

I’m a young Christian American reader writer dreamer wanderer walker flier listener talker scholar adventurer musician word-magician romantic critic religious idealist optipessimist man.

4 thoughts on “Movie Review: Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)”

  1. I got the impression the film was set in America, n’est pas? You almost convinced me to find/watch it with the ‘deep characters, occasional Western vibes’, but lost me at ‘beloved creature-characters being used to support anthropomorphisation’. Also, if you haven’t read Fantastic Mr.Fox, you have not read enough Roald Dahl. Go get yourself a copy of it, Matilda, Danny, Champion of the World and The Witches at once. [firm nod]

    1. It seems to be set in England, but it does a funny thing with the accents: all the humans are English, all the animals speak American. The soundtrack is mostly American, I think, with some songs from Georges Delerue and some original ones from Alexandre Desplat.

      It doesn’t disparage their animal natures, far from it. I don’t know whether or not the movie intends to support anthropomorphism, but the way events played out just made far more use of the animals’ human traits. There’s room for disagreement, though: the Todd McCarthy review I linked to above believes that it’s really Mr. Fox’s wild side that wins out at the end. His family finally embraces his thieving-trickster nature. The wolf scene, in particular, is open to many interpretations. The wolf is clearly wild: it doesn’t speak, or wear clothes, or walk upright, and is seen from a distance. But its beauty causes the other human-like animals to gape in fear and admiration. I think you should definitely watch the movie — it’s mostly just a lot of fun, and you’re not likely to be tied down to my interpretation.

      I had some Dahl read to me when I was in elementary school ages ago, but haven’t come back to him yet. The only ones I really remember are James and the Giant Peach and The BFG. Hm. I’ll look into him again. Thanks for the reminder. ‘-)

  2. Enjoyable review, old fellow. If I did film reviews I’d have to visit this one, too. Amidst stiff competition I think it’s probably the best animated film I’ve seen, with certainly the best writing. Wes Anderson can do very little wrong in my book. As a lifelong fan of Roald Dahl I was gratified by the adherance to the book’s plot, and impressed by the deviations: all of which were sensible, well thought out, and supportive of the main story. One of the only movies of recent years that I’ve laughed out loud most of the way through.

    I think you’re absolutely right with Anderson’s delight in poking through that fourth wall, but I think (as with most of Wes Anderson’s films) the point to the movie is a sensitive examination of flawed yet beautiful characters, mixed with an existential question delicately put to the audience, and an invitation to love the characters as their director and writer loves them.

    I’m glad you enjoyed it.

    1. The film has played scores of times on TV this year, and it never quite gets old. Even now that I have the story and dialogue nearly memorized, the visual artistry has such detail and flair that it always keeps me interested. I’m not sure it’s the best animated movie I’ve seen, but it’s probably near the top of the list. I’m glad Anderson did stop-motion instead of CGI.

      I like that idea, that the movie invites you to love the characters in spite of their flaws. It’s a trait I instinctively appreciate in any writer, perhaps because it seems such an inherently Christian attitude.

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