Fantastic Mr. Fox is a Russian doll of a movie—a droll, sophisticated caper comedy nestled snugly inside a lively, beautifully animated kiddie flick. Not content with merely being palatable to adults, Wes Anderson's sly stop-motion adaptation of Roald Dahl's 1970 children's novel operates on two very different levels and consistently succeeds at both. Kids will be entertained by a talking-animal fable that never condescends to them, while their accompanying adults will finally find reparation for having to sit through 90-minute fart jokes like G-Force.
George Clooney stars as the dapper, honey-tongued Mr. Fox, an amiable poultry thief who vows to walk the straight and narrow when he learns that his wife (Meryl Streep) is pregnant. Two years (that's 12 in fox years) pass uneventfully enough, with Fox trading the chicken coop for the newsroom. Now a journalist and the father of a sullen but good-hearted little misfit named Ash (Jason Schwartzman), Fox finds himself on the losing end of an existential crisis that has him yearning for the unpredictable thrills of his youth. Against the advice of his badger lawyer (Bill Murray), Fox buys a tree in the back yard of three of the nastiest farmers around. It isn't long before he's up to his old chicken-pilfering tricks, this time with his nephew Kristofferson (Eric Anderson) and opossum pal Kylie (Wally Wolodarsky) in tow. His antics soon earn the enmity of the farmers, and the rivalry escalates into a war that threatens every critter in Fox's community.
If it feels like the stop-motion fairy tales you watched in school as a kid, that's no coincidence. Anderson ensured the flick's lo-fi, retro vibe by putting the kibosh on any talk of post-production digital effects. Everything was done in camera—a rarity these days, even for stop-motion. The result, rendered in a lush, autumnal palette of golds, oranges, reds, and browns, is a world so beautifully and painstakingly realized that it creates a 3D effect without any 3D effects. Cellophane stands in for water, cotton wool serves as smoke, and jagged flames are carved from glycerin soap. Each forest, farmyard, and quaint village tableau is a character in and of itself; the world that Fox and his colleagues inhabit practically demands a repeat viewing. The puppets themselves, covered with real fur that is dramatically manipulated by the film's animators, are beautifully made and elegant in their simplicity.
So it's a pleasure to look at, but that wouldn't amount for much without a compelling story about sympathetic characters. Happily, Fox has those things in spades, too. Even as Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach take liberties with Dahl's tale and add liberal doses of just-the-right-side-of-twee charm, they never do it the disservice of sanding off its sharp edges. There's an undeniable darkness to the story, with the threat of death (and even dismemberment) looming tangibly on the horizon. These characters might be anthropomorphized to the nth degree, but they're still wild creatures at heart. A heated argument can quickly descend into snarls and slashing claws, and the animals seem ill-equipped to deal with the farmers and their guns, explosives, and heavy machinery.
The cast is pitch-perfect. Besides the principals, Fox features strong turns by Michael Gambon and Willem Dafoe as head farmer Bean and his sleazy rat henchman, um, Rat, respectively. And, since Anderson doesn't think it's a party without at least one Wilson brother, Owen enjoys a brief but fun role as the cheerfully demoralizing Coach Skip.
If Fox is any indication, perhaps Anderson should direct more movies via e-mail. (Though principal photography took place in England, he helmed the movie from his base in Paris.) Though Fox isn't entirely free of the navel-gazing that marks many of Anderson's films, it's in shorter supply here and not as annoying. Fox occasionally gets bogged down in Anderson's self-conscious attempts at quirkiness—a musical number featuring Britpop icon Jarvis Cocker, for instance, smacks of trying just a little too hard—but the missteps are infrequent and forgivable. Fox captures the trademark offbeat charm of Anderson's best work, while avoiding the self-indulgent pitfalls.
It's been a banner year for animation so far, with more than 20 films submitted for consideration for the 2009 Best Animated Feature Oscar. Even on such a crowded playing field, Fantastic Mr. Fox easily stands out as one of the best of the batch.