Saturday, October 17, 2009

Review - Fantastic Mr Fox

A few weeks ago, I attended a screening of a film called Mary and Max, a brilliant Australian animated film which regretfully doesn't have UK distribution yet. It's the story of a lonely young Australian girl who begins a decades-long friendship by mail with an Aspergers-afflicted Jewish man living in New York. The touching and hilarious story is so involving, and the characters so brilliantly realised, I didn't actually realise the voices were provided by Toni Collette, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Eric Bana until their names had been announced by the closing credits. All of this goes some way to explaining a few of the problems I had with Wes Anderson's adaptation of Fantastic Mr Fox.

In Anderson's film, Mr Fox is voiced by George Clooney, and there's no mistaking the actor's presence, as he tosses out smug wisecracks in the central role. The same is true for Billy Murray's Badger, or Jason Schwartzman's turn as Mr Fox's son Ash, and as the puppets used to bring these figures to life don't have the most expressive faces in the world, there's often a strange disconnect between actor and character (Meryl Streep, naturally, seems to overcome this hurdle better than most). So, I didn't really buy into Fantastic Mr Fox as rendered on screen by the director and his talented team of artists, even if I was occasionally amused and impressed by the production, and the idiosyncratic stylistic choices than run through all of Anderson's work didn't bother me as much in this setting as they usually do. Fantastic Mr Fox is every inch a Wes Anderson picture, from the storybook opening and chapter divisions, to the side-on tracking shots and eclectic soundtrack choices.

Thematically, the story fits the Anderson mould too, as the screenplay – which he wrote with Noah Baumbach – leans heavily on daddy issues, with young misfit Ash desperately trying to prove himself to his father, and constantly being outshone by cousin Kristofferson (Eric Anderson). The main strand of the story remains relatively unadulterated, though, even if Anderson and Baumbach have modernised (and Americanised) it in a number of ways. Mr Fox, feeling frustrated in his day job, succumbs to his urge to steal from the nearby farms run by Boggis, Bunce and Bean, despite promising his wife that his days of crime are behind him. The ensuing film consists of a series of set-pieces which are strung together in a sometimes disjointed way. In fact, there's something a little disjointed about Fantastic Mr Fox as a whole. It is an extremely strange film, blending a kid-friendly story with humour that's often too sly and knowing for its own good (the frequent use of the word "cuss" as a substitute for bad language is the most irritating example), and the vast majority of gags fall very flat.

The film's fast pacing and inventive direction keeps it on track, though. In many ways, animation is the perfect milieu for Wes Anderson, whose fastidiously controlled mise-en-scène has sometimes left his live-action features feeling a bit airless. For Fantastic Mr Fox, the director is working again with Henry Selick – who contributed to The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou – and the film's aesthetic has an intentionally jerky, handmade look, perhaps as an old-school riposte to the slick style of most mainstream animations. It takes some getting used to, but Anderson does produce some fine moments and a few witty sight gags, and it suits his desire to fill the frame with tiny details. I'm sure Fantastic Mr Fox will offer many pleasures on DVD, when viewers can freeze the image to pick up on the countless additional touches Anderson has squeezed into view, but while the director has put an awful lot of work into creating this universe, he didn't quite do enough to make me believe in it.