Roald Dahl’s wonderfully imaginative tales have often made for entertaining films. From Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) to The Witches (1990), Dahl’s subversive humour, evocative imagery, and interesting characters have translated magnificently from page to screen. Just like the author’s wild imagination, Wes Anderson’s penchant for whimsical storytelling brings his audience to a rapturous childlike state. In his first animated feature, Fantastic Mr. Fox allowed the filmmaker to indulge his cinematic idiosyncrasies with luxurious stop-motion animation, creating a tale for audiences of all ages.
After discovering he’s going got be a father, Mr Fox (George Clooney) agrees to renounce his mischievous lifestyle for a sustainable future with his family. Twelve “fox years” later and Mr Fox has abandoned larceny and writes for a local newspaper. However, feeling somewhat unfilled and unsatisfied with his life, he decides to purchase a piece of prime real estate. From his towering tree, Mr Fox has a clear vantage point of the surrounding countryside including the farms of notorious farmers Boggis, Bunce, and Bean (Michael Gambon). Unbeknownst to Mrs Fox (Meryl Streep), it isn’t long until Mr Fox is tempted back into his old lifestyle. However, he underestimates the vengeful farmers as they descend upon the valley in an attempt to capture him. With the homes and families of the other animals now at risk, Mr Fox and his friends must embrace their natural instincts and wild nature in a bid to survive.
The highly eclectic and diverse cast breathes wonderful life into Dahl’s literary creations while staying true to Anderson’s signature character archetypes. George Clooney (The Midnight Sky) is predictably superlative and seamlessly slips into the role of the eponymous character. As the rebellious Mr Fox, he’s a reformed thief turned journalist who’s unable to deny his free-spirited nature. Clooney’s natural deadpan delivery and seductive voice elicit the charismatic nature of his character perfectly. “I understand what you’re saying, and your comments are valuable, but I’m gonna ignore your advice”, he declares. The actor breathes an unbelievable amount of life into his character with an irresistible blend of mischief and sophisticated elegance. There’s an undeniable echo of the handsome Danny Ocean in the look of Mr Fox’s pliable puppet and his silky movements, too. Meryl Streep (Little Women) brings a resilient yet lovingly maternal presence to the screen as Mrs Felicity Fox. The actress’s vocals are perfect for the sensible and responsible partner in the marriage, with her calm and collected demeanour offering a nice juxtaposition against her husband’s wilder nature.
As one would expect, there are a plethora of colourful characters featuring voice cameos from regulars of Anderson’s oeuvre. Owen Wilson (The Royal Tenenbaums) briefly appears to explain the intricacies of the game ‘Whack-Bat’ as Coach Skip, while Bill Murray (Moonrise Kingdom) depicts the brusque and combative attorney, Mr Badger. However, the highlight is Jason Schwartzman (The Darjeeling Limited) as the hilariously pessimistic and petulant young cub, Ash. Echoing the awkward Max Fischer from Rushmore (1999), the insecure young fox is keen to prove himself to his father. Schwartzman’s awkward line delivery is perfect and the relationship between him and Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson) steals the show. The director’s approach to the sound design is just as inspired as his characters. Admirably, rather than scheduled studio sessions, Anderson recorded the cast’s voices as naturally as possible. During production, the actors took residence in a remote location where they acted out each scene. “We went out in a forest, we went in an attic and we went in a stable. We went underground for some things. There was a great spontaneity in the recordings because of that”, recalled the filmmaker. That effect imbues the picture with a sense of realism and adds texture to the character’s dilemmas. There’s a genuine sense throughout that the ensemble is actually acting and not lending their voice to someone else’s vision.
While remaining faithful to the author’s vision, it’s undeniable the director leaves his own paw print on Dahl’s work. Following their fruitful immersion into India during The Darjeeling Limited, Anderson convinced co-writer Noah Baumbach (Squid and the Whale) to reside in the quaint village of Great Missenden where Roald Dahl spent most of his working life. After some polite correspondence with Felicity Dahl, they gained access to the author’s home and its rustic grounds. Hoping to channel Dahl’s imagination and caustic humour, Anderson was granted permission to sit in his old armchair to write the screenplay. Perhaps to the dismay of Dahl purists, the filmmaker adds an existential twist onto the story expanding Fox’s antics. However, similar to Matilda (1996), it remains faithful to the spirit of the source material. Fantastic Mr. Fox has so many enjoyable moments as Anderson employs his whimsical comedic sensibilities. In particular, the filmmaker’s genius for incongruous details including Beagles’ love for blueberries and Fox’s mild allergy to linoleum. Additionally, there’s a hilarious running joke as the characters replace curse words with the word “cuss”. During an argument, Mr. Badger (Bill Murray) growls “if you’re gonna cuss with somebody, you’re not gonna cuss with me, you little cuss”. Throughout the brisk 90-minute runtime, Anderson and Baumbach’s script is filled with obscure humour and distinct personality.
What makes Fantastic Mr. Fox such a delightful experience is the breathtaking precision of stop-motion animation and how cunningly it conveys character. Enamoured by Ladislas Starewich’s Roman de Renard (1937), Anderson wanted his animated world to psychically exist and avoided the use of CGI. Wearing it like a badge of honour, he stated that “old-fashioned special effects tend to appeal to me. There’s an imperfection that doesn’t really qualify as an imperfection because it’s the real thing”. Anderson’s approach to animation proved to be a beautiful marriage of his whimsical script and idiosyncratic filmmaking techniques. The director first experimented with the medium during The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2005) with the stop-motion pioneer Henry Selick. Having previously directed Dahl’s animated adaptation of James and the Giant Peach (1996), Selick was originally enrolled in Fantastic Mr. Fox. However, he eventually departed the project to direct Coraline (2009). The handmade puppets were eventually designed and crafted by Ian MacKinnon and Peter Saunders, who also collaborated with Tim Burton on Corpse Bride (2005). The amount of detail that’s been poured into each character looks truly majestic. Whether it’s Mr. Fox’s corduroy suit or Kristofferson’s buttoned-up shirt, each meticulous design is imbued with a tangible sense of life.
Despite the radical changes in format, Anderson seamlessly manages to implement many of his visual aesthetics to blissful effect. Similar to The Royal Tenenbaums, the autumnal colour palette comprised of rich oranges, yellows, and browns look beautiful. Whereas the two-dimensional nature of animation perfectly compliments the filmmaker’s symmetrical compositions and lateral camera movements. Nelson Lowery’s (Missing Link) particularly scrupulous production design is perfect for an art form that demands patience and care. Anderson had 30 different soundstages working simultaneously that was influenced but the author’s home village, Great Missenden. Lowery explained “even though the film is wildly stylised it is really based on this landscape. There is a radio tower across the street, and that’s in the movie. We literally traced the shapes of the bushes and the trees there”. The miniature sets are a treasure trove of quirky details and Anderson’s love of analogue technology. Vintage relics can be found in large black and white television sets, clunking dictaphones, record players, and bicycles. The time-consuming technicality of stop-motion animation looks effortless but the attention to detail is hard to miss.
A fundamental key to Anderson’s aesthetic is his use of music, an elemental force in every one of his features. Rushmore was infused with the rebellious chords from bands of the British Invasion including Cat Stevens’ “Here Comes My Baby” and Faces “Oh La La”. Whereas The Royal Tenenbaums channeled the avant-garde spirit of Andy Warhol featuring Nico’s “These Days” and The Velvet Underground’s “Stephanie Says”. Similarly, Alexandre Desplat (The Shape of Water) infuses Fantastic Mr. Fox with an eclectic mix of classic pop-rock songs. Two particular highlights are The Beach Boys’ “Heroes and Villains” and The Bobby Fuller Four’s “Let Her Dance”. The pair inspire an incredible chase sequence and a spontaneous dance scene, echoing the eagerness for adventure that’s present throughout all of Anderson’s oeuvre. Additionally, British folk singer Jarvis Cocker even lends his voice as Petey to contribute “Petey’s Song”. Between each melody, Desplat fills the air with plucky banjos, jazz flutes, whistles, and mandolins. While creating a child-like atmosphere of fun and innocence, it perfectly captures the rural agricultural setting and character of the filmmaker’s vision.
Although Anderson infuses Dahl’s story with a degree of sophistication, there’s also an undertow of melancholic sentimentality. Beyond the idealistic countryside landscape, the filmmaker readily acknowledges the unsavoury realities and the severe tragedies of real life. Recurring themes including sibling rivalry and familial dysfunction plague several characters in various fashions. Similar to Rushmore’s Max Fischer, Ash is envious of his athletically gifted cousin Kristofferson, while Mr. Fox’s strained relationship with his wife and son echoes The Royal Tenenbaums. However, beneath Fantastic Mr. Fox’s whimsical exterior is a sobering undercurrent of sense of identity. Although Mr Fox has seemingly abandoned his wild instincts, he also fears that he has become domesticated. During several scenes he reassures himself, professing “I am a wild animal”. There’s a heartwarming sequence when Mr Fox notices a mysterious wolf on a distant hill. There’s a brief connection between them both as Mr Fox raises his fist in solidarity before the wolf disappears; with tears in his eyes, Mr Fox realises that he’s no longer a wild animal, but a husband and father. While most children’s animations pander to their audience, Anderson trusts his younger viewers to understand Mr Fox’s journey of self-discovery.
While remaining somewhat faithful to Roald Dahl’s classic children’s novel, Anderson imbues Fantastic Mr. Fox with his own quirky sensibilities. The symphony of autumnal colours, imaginative story, and witty dialogue are married together seamlessly. Similar to Where the Wild Things Are (2009), it’s both heartwarming and turbulent, fulfilling the role as both a beautiful adaption and a piece of art. Unfortunately, stop-motion animation is a scarcely used medium in contemporary cinema. However, Fantastic Mr. Fox is a perfect example of this lost method of filmmaking. The attention to detail is phenomenal and each frame is beautifully realised. Considering this was Anderson’s first animated feature-length, it’s cussing fantastic.
UK • USA | 2009 | 87 MINUTES | 1:85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH • FRENCH
Blu-ray Special Features:
You’d have to be grumpier than Boggis, Bunce, and Bean combined to complain about Fantastic Mr. Fox‘s Criterion Blu-ray presentation. Using the original aspect ratio of 1:85:1, the image is presented in an impressive 1080p. Shot on Nikon D3 cameras, the transfer was personally supervised by Wes Anderson himself. As one would expect, Criterion’s delivered an outstanding transfer for their HD disc; the levels of detail are sublime and one can see each individual hair on each animal’s body. Minor details including the texture of Mr. Fox’s corduroy coat and all the particulars of the miniature props are presented with stunning clarity. Fans of stop-motion animation will likely pause each sequence to marvel at the incredibly intricate work of the production artists. The autumnal colour palette of browns, yellows, and oranges is beautifully reproduced and enhances the storybook aesthetic. Admittedly, there’s no discernible difference between 20th Century Fox’s 2010 Blu-ray release, but for both Criterion collectors and Anderson fans, this latest edition makes a wonderful addition to their collection.
While not as immediately impressive as the picture quality, Fantastic Mr. Fox boasts a lossless English DTS-HD 5.1 audio mix. The dynamic range is quite impressive as the track is nicely dispersed around the sound system. The dialogue remains crisp and clean anchored primarily at the front. The distinct animal sounds each actor makes are clear and blend in with their dialogue seamlessly. The rear channels capture the environmental noises and ambient sound effects from the farms with clarity. The subwoofer is well utilised, creating mighty rumbles during the large action sequences. Like all of Anderson’s features, the specific musical choices and Desplat’s superb score energise the picture. While remaining primarily at the back, they never drown out any of the dialogue or sound effects. Overall, it’s an incredibly immersive track that compliments the picture.
- New digital master, approved by director Wes Anderson, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray.
- Audio commentary featuring Wes Anderson.
- The Making of ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’. This seven-part documentary explores the production of Fantastic Mr. Fox. Each segment covers performances, sound recording, early animation tests, set design, and music. Although each featurettes is short, there’s a wealth of interesting information that exposes the complications of production. The highlight is witnessing George Clooney perform on location to capture Mr. Fox’s personality.
- Publicity Featurettes. Six mini-documentaries that celebrate the production of Fantastic Mr. Fox. The cast and crew are provided a plethora of information on the production of the film. The highlight features Bill Murray visiting the set to meet his character and admire the wealth of detail employed during the shoot.
- Audio recording of author Roald Dahl reading the book on which the film is based. Roald Dahl Reads ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’ is a 50-minute audio recording of the author reading his book with terrific enthusiasm.
- Fantastic Mr. Dahl, an hour-long 2005 documentary about the author. A 60-minute BBC documentary on the life of Roald Dahl. There are plenty of interviews with Dahl’s family and friends that discuss his literary achievements and lasting legacy in the hearts of his readers. Several archival interviews with Dahl are also included that have been collected from various talk show appearances.
- Gallery of Dahl’s original manuscripts.
- Discussion and analysis of the film.
- Animated awards acceptance speeches
- Stop-motion Sony robot commercial by Anderson.
- PLUS: An essay by critic Erica Wagner and (Blu-ray only) a 2002 article on Dahl’s Gipsy House by Anderson; White Cape, a comic book used as a prop in the film; and drawings, original paintings, and other ephemera.
Cast & Crew
director: Wes Anderson
writers: Wes Anderson & Noah Baumbach (based on the book by Roald Dahl).
starring: George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Michael Gambon, Owen Wilson, Willem Defoe.