Friday, December 11, 2009

One Person's Fantasy...

...could be another's nightmare.

I went a few days ago to see Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Anderson first splashed onto the scene with 1998's Rushmore, and has followed that with a string of quirky, poignant comedies: The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) and The Darjeeling Limited (2007). Now comes Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson's first foray into animation.

The story, based on a book by Roald Dahl, tells of the travails of the Fox family. Mr. Fox, voiced by the instantly-recognizable George Clooney, has abandoned his miscreant's life of chicken-stealing for a respectable career as a newspaper columnist. But his old urges remain. After moving his family into an upscale residence in a hollowed-out tree--with a view of the area's three biggest, meanest farmers--he finds himself plotting a series of daring raids on the farmers.

The stop-action clay-mation film feels like a cross between Wallace & Grommit and, well, Wes Anderson. There's a certain sameness to Anderson's films, a particular box of goodies he carries with him to each new project. He has an identifiable visual style, and his choice of music often feels to me as though he put a bunch of tracks on tape 20 years ago and he's been using those same tracks ever since (like the jazz trio that seems to accompany every Woody Allen title crawl). The movie is a treat visually, being (I believe) the first use of "furry" clay-mation, but it feels exactly like an animated Wes Anderson film; one will very likely feel about this film exactly as one has felt about his past work.

But in the end I'm left wondering just who the right audience is for the film. I really love The Royal Tenenbaums; it seems like the film that captures his odd vision perfectly. But nothing else of his has grabbed me similarly. I feels as though Anderson is trying to make the same statement over and over, and never manages to do it as well as he did a decade ago. (Odd that I don't feel the same way about the Coen Brothers' work, though I can imagine someone leveling the same criticism at them.) The animation part of Fantastic Mr. Fox, and the simplicity of the story, would play well with kids--even young kids (though old enough to sit through a 90 minute film). The existential crisis of the younger son Ash (Jason Schwartzman), who is constantly overshadowed by the accomplishments and seeming perfection of his visiting cousin Kristofferson ( Eric Anderson), seem more aimed at a young teen audience. And the strains placed on the Fox's marriage by Mr. Fox's exploits seem to require a mature, married audience to find a full measure of sympathetic vibration. So something for everybody, maybe; or maybe something less than a full measure for anyone.

I was entertained and visually stimulated, and the voice talent is first-rate (Meryl Streep, Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe, Michael Gambon, Owen Wilson). The story whisks along and while everything is predictable in broad strokes, there is some suspense to see how the details will play out. But it's not a film I feel compelled to add to my collection for further viewings.

Grade: B-

No comments: