A stop-motion animated film based on Roald Dahl's "Fantastic Mr. Fox" and targeting family viewers is one thing. A stop-motion animated film based on Roald Dahl's "Fantastic Mr. Fox" that is written and directed by Wes Anderson (2007's "The Darjeeling Limited
") is quite another. Undaunted by this brand-new, painstaking medium that has previously been put to fine use in 1993's "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and 2009's "Coraline
," Anderson adapts it to specifically mesh with his quirky style of desert-dry humor, fourth-wall breaking, and rock music preferences. For a filmmaker who hit big with 1998's wonderful "Rushmore
" and has been trying to recreate that same feel ever since with inferior material, "Fantastic Mr. Fox" is unfortunately not Anderson's comeback feature. His indie-fueled, deadpan sensibilities do not fit here, turning a delightful, if slight, children's book into a lethargic, adult-minded curiosity that children will quickly grow restless with.
The opening is awkwardly edited, as if a scene were missing. Wily Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney) and ever-patient Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) break into a nearby farm's chicken coop, only to fall for a trap that finds them behind bars. "In case we get out of this alive, I want you to know I'm pregnant," Mrs. Fox says. With no explanation on how they escaped punishment, the film jumps two years into the future (twelve fox years for those counting) and Mr. and Mrs. Fox are just fine, now raising a son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman), who is having trouble fitting in with his peers and finding a talent to call his own. A newspaper man by trade who is going through a mid-life crisis, Mr. Fox is tired of living in a hole and sets out to find his family a new home. He finds one, all right, in the hollow of a tree, the major coup being the three farms sitting just on the horizon. Much to Mrs. Fox's chagrin, Mr. Fox prowls the night, nabbing chickens, turkeys and cider, the specialties of owners Boggis (Robin Hurlstone), Bunce (Hugo Guinness) and Bean (Michael Gambon). These three humorless men don't take kindly to thieves, and soon a war has begun, the Foxes, along with their woodland friends, forced out of their homes and digging underground tunnels as a means of escaping the farmers' wrath. As Ash tries to take charge on his own, Mr. Fox still has a few tricky ideas up his sleeves.
Full of talky exchanges, awkward pauses, and sly non-sequitors, it is hard to imagine "Fantastic Mr. Fox" winning over many young fans. The pacing is slow, most of the characters are adults going through interpersonal conflicts, and the driving force of Roald Dahl's original story never gets out of first gear on film. The plot often resembles a series of strung-together sketches and the villainsBoggis, Bunce and Beanaren't bad enough to be memorable. One could even accuse the animals of being just as much antagonists as the farmers. The humor is of the droll variety, not laugh-out-loud funny so much as eliciting half-smiles, while the characters, save for perhaps underdog Ash, fail to endear themselves to the viewer. There is an all-around stiffness to the proceedingsa stodgy, sleepy, listless quality that one suspects comes from editing that isn't tight enough and direction that isn't clear enough (allegedly, Wes Anderson rarely stepped foot in the studio and instructed the artists and technicians from his home computer). When animated characters are seen standing around not looking like they know what to do next, it might signal that something is amiss from a technical behind-the-scenes stance.
If "Fantastic Mr. Fox" has anything going for it, it is the curiously old-fashioned yet impressively intricate stop-motion animation. The figures onscreen move around in slight jerks, lacking the smoothness of, say, the CGI-enhanced "Coraline
," but the amount of detail brought to their faces and individual hairs is amazing to behold. The characters' surroundingsmostly rural landscapes with rolling fields and farmlandglow with the hues of dusk in autumn. The use of song also sets the picture apart from the typical kiddie fare, with classic tunes from The Beach Boys and The Rolling Stones alongside a few toe-tapping original numbers by Jarvis Cocker (who also voices the guitar-strumming role of crooner Petey).
It's easy to admire the artistry behind "Fantastic Mr. Fox," but it is a bear to warm up to the film itself. Leaving you lukewarm and disconnected when you should be inspired and enchanted, this curiosity piece is bound to attract a select group of cult followers and few others. As for what the late, great Roald Dahl would think? He probably would not be pleased with the liberties taken to his book, but he would appreciate that Wes Anderson has stuck to his guns and delivered a film with a singular vision and none of the smarmy bathroom humor and cheap pop-culture references that litter up many of today's family efforts. "Fantastic Mr. Fox" isn't dumbthere are sparks of human nature spotted in the eyes of its non-human charactersbut it also isn't altogether satisfying or involving. A defibrillator could have only helped.