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One night, during a raid on a local farm, Mr. Fox (George Clooney) and his wife Felicity (Meryl Streep) are trapped in a cage. While contemplating their situation Felicity reveals that she’s pregnant, and asks Mr. Fox to move on to safer work. Two human years later Mr. and Mrs. Fox and their son Ash (Jason Schwartzman) have settled into a life in a hole, and Mr. Fox is not happy. He decides to move into a bigger and more illustrious home in a tree, using the meager funds from his writing job. Mr. Fox’s lawyer Badger (Bill Murray) warns him against taking the house, which borders on the farm land of evil corporate farmers Walter Boggis, Nathan Bunce, and Franklin Bean. Meanwhile, Felicity's soft-spoken savant nephew Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson) moves in with the family following his father’s illness, much to the chagrin of Ash, whose outsider, sullen ways rarely garner the attention of his fantastically famous father.

Fantastic Mr. Fox, The
I mostly failed at the simple task of going to the movies this last year, and missing Fantastic Mr. Fox was my worst offense. This Blu-ray review more or less marks the end of my 2009 film experience (at least until my copy of Where the Wild Things Are comes from Netflix, and Secret of the Kells sees a US release). Happily, Fantastic Mr. Fox is an ideal capper, as it represents two of the season’s most remarkable defining elements – unhinged imagination, and transcendence of characterization over plot. Again and again (and again) I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing copies of 2009’s animated releases, all but one of which ( Ice Age 3, my copy of Planet 51 did not work) stepped above and beyond the low expectation ghetto of ‘children’s entertainment’, and often outshone much of the best of the year’s ‘serious’ cinema. Also affecting both the positive and negative ends of the year’s biggest critical concerns are the shadow of a largely negative writer’s strike, opposed by a handful of experiments in character driven and episodic story telling, which lead to clunky blockbusters like Wolverine, actor driven spectacles like Star Trek, and unconventional Oscar noms like Inglorious Basterds and The Hurt Locker.
 
Fantastic Mr. Fox is certainly an unconventional and wildly imaginative film, and it challenges mainstream audiences with its stippled plotting. The basic premise seems conventional enough in terms of children’s entertainment. Talking, anthropomorphized animals have been a genre mainstay, and the film structurally surely has something in common with Aardman Animation’s Chicken Run and Pixar’s Ratatouille, but the dual eccentricities of Roald Dahl and Wes Anderson outshine any familiar narrative elements. The question is of expectations, and unprepared audiences aren’t going to know how to deal with either personality in terms of conventional talking critter movies. Even those familiar with Dahl’s wildly popular books will likely be taken aback if they aren’t familiar with Anderson, as Mr. Fox is very damn much a signature Wes Anderson motion picture.

Fantastic Mr. Fox, The
For better or worse Mr. Fox is perhaps more challenging than any other film in writer/director Anderson’s incomparable career – a career seemingly stuck in such a creative rut even fans have found their patience tested. Like many stylistically original filmmakers Anderson is obsessed with technical aspects of his films, from colour schemes and costume design, to seemingly frivolous idiosyncrasies like end credit fonts and prop book titles. His first three films, Bottle Rocket, Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, make up a sort of loose trilogy, exploring similar characters and themes while slowly building the director’s distinctive style – a unique technique that really hasn’t been given its proper due in terms of cinematic impact. Following Tenenbaums every quirky indie film out of America was aping Anderson’s twee-baroque style, specifically directors Jared Hess ( Napoleon Dynamite) and Zach Braff ( Garden State). The critics finally turned on Anderson when he made The Life Aquatic, which continued following the same themes, but pressed the visual quirks to fantastic arenas, including stop motion animation from Henry Selick ( Nightmare Before Christmas, Coraline). The repetition began to put people off, though as a fan I was so charmed by the bizarre visuals I still count the film a success. Anderson lost most of the rest of us with his fifth (and a half) film The Darjeeling Limited, a mopey re-telling of all his other films set against the colourfully alien backdrop of India.
 
Mr. Fox, unfortunately, does not see the director growing creatively. However, the new venue certainly disguises the problem, and I find myself back on board for another episode of Wes Anderson the Nebbish Neurotic Show. Here Anderson doesn’t simply adapt his signature imagery to animation in terms of lighting, photography, and production design, he mainlines the experience. There’s no mistaking who was behind the production, even a production as complex, slow, and personnel heavy as stop-motion animation (apparently much to the chagrin of the animators and animation directors). Unlike modern stop motion masters like Henry Selick or Nick Park ( Chicken Run, Wallace and Gromit) he isn’t interested in smoothing over the technique’s inherent ‘problems’. The whole film is shot on ‘twos’ (12 frames per second instead of 24), and no one bothers to compensate for the minor impurities, specifically the fur of the puppets, which wisps about like those old Wind and the Willows shorts. Personally I enjoyed the hand-crafted look, and appreciate it just as much as Park and Selick’s super intricate approach, though certainly on a different level. The look is rough, and the fact that it was intended as such is not going to make a difference to the majority of viewers, who probably aren’t concerned with intended anachronism.
 
Fantastic Mr. Fox, The
The verbal comedy is very, very dry, but occasional spiked with hard slapstick, all set to the casual rhythms of Anderson’s very specific sense of humour. The characters are consistently sarcastic and understated, pushing a degree of un-likeability, and absurdity is embraced without special notice, as if the impossibly weird is somehow the norm. I find this stuff enduringly hilarious. Not everyone will agree with me (as a matter of fact, the people I watched the film with were pretty dumbfounded by my giggles). Anderson continues exploring his favourite themes into the dirt, but unlike the droning stagnation that was The Darjeeling Limited, mister obsessive rediscovers joyful means to express these compulsive ideas. Defining themes are topped by family, specifically the ‘found family’ that comes with community, antagonistic father/son dynamics, dead (or in this case dying) parents, and born losers that see themselves as born winners. Casual crime also plays a pretty big part. Viewers unfamiliar with Anderson’s work stand to find this mix endearing, while his critics will probably balk at his continued arrested development. I’d personally love to see the guy move the hell on the next time around, but I’m so charmed by his world view as placed in a stop motion animation domain that I’m willing to go along with it one more time.

Fantastic Mr. Fox, The

Video


Stop motion animation is one of the best arenas for high definition video, especially when every intricate aspect of the frame is in perfect focus. The viewer is free to explore the solitary fluttering hairs on the puppets (pause and count if you’d like), Mr. Fox’s corduroy textured blazer, and even the deep set backgrounds. There are joyful little morsels all over the place that go missing on the less perfect DVD copy that comes along with the set. Look at the trilobite fossils crammed into the background of the caves. Not satisfied with sharp, artifact-free details? How about a delectably iridescent and varied colour pallet? Clearly a Wes Anderson film doesn’t have to be animated to be candy coloured, but the realms of stop motion don’t hurt the director’s twee sensibilities. Mr. Fox features a handful of cool landscapes and popping blue items, but for the most part Anderson and company have aimed for an entirely autumn pallet, including glowing golds and yellows set against darkened skies, chocolate brown caves, and charcoal sewers. The black and white levels work despite a rather even handed contrast, revealing basically perfect representations of every intended element.

Audio


Like most of your Fox releases (no pun intended) this one comes fitted with a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, and for the most part it is a joyful celebration of dynamic extremes. The dialogue track is occasionally a little canned and muffly, as if it were recorded through a telephone, but it’s pretty consistent. The behind the scenes reveals that a lot of the dialogue was actually recorded outside of a studio booth to create more natural performances. The bass of Clooney and Gambon’s voices are good and rumbly, though the performances rarely stay entirely centered on the track. Sound effects are present consistently in all channels, though directional effects are not gigantic in terms of sheer noise. The most effective aural moments are mostly musical, though the climatic battle is rather bombastic for its tiny scale (similar to the war based play that closes out Rushmore). For whatever reason Anderson didn’t go with his usual musical collaborator Mark Mothersbaugh for his first fully animated film (perhaps Mothersbaugh was too busy with Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs), but Alexandre Desplat certainly fills the whimsy bill snugly. The Oscar nominated music is bouncy, punchy, and features pockets of beautiful contrast, not to mention multi channel orchestrations. The pop and rock entries are equally impressive, especially a rousing rendition of the Stones ‘Street Fighting Man’.
 
Fantastic Mr. Fox, The

Extras


The extras begin with the six part making-of documentary ‘Making Mr. Fox Fantastic’ (45:00, HD). Things start with ‘The Look of Fantastic Mr. Fox’, a discussion concerning the original book illustrations, Dahl’s real life inspiration, the general production and set design, the colour schemes, and lighting. ‘From Script to Screen’ discusses the adaptation of Dahl’s short story, Anderson’s direction style, storyboarding, and Anderson’s live action source (apparently he acted out almost the entire film, much like Seth Green does for Robot Chicken). ‘The Puppet Makers’ definitely speaks for itself, and covers character design to sculpting and character decoration. ‘Still Life’ looks at the film’s old fashion animation style, which turned off many viewers. This section introduces the animators and animation director, and features some fun time lapse photography. ‘The Cast’ also speaks for itself, and features a lot of footage of the actors being recorded in the thick of acting. ‘Bill and His Badger’ wraps things up with Bill Murray discussing his work on the film, and exploring the sets. Missing from the doc, unsurprisingly, is word of all the apparent behind the scenes strife, which saw the animators complaining of a lack of on set attention from Anderson in a public forum.
 
The rest of the disc’s extras include ‘A Beginner’s Guide to Whack-Bat’ (1:00, HD), ‘The World of Roald Dahl’ (3:00, HD), a look at Dahl’s house (where the script was written) and history, and a trailer.
 
Fantastic Mr. Fox, The

Overall


Fantastic Mr. Fox is clearly another personal film from writer/director Wes Anderson, but it works on Anderson’s usual terms, and fans like myself should be very happy. I happened to watch the film in a roomful of people that were flabbergasted by the tone, which may have tempered the enthusiasm of this review. I was enthralled, charmed and sore from laughing, but the opposing position was hard to ignore. I guess this isn’t a film for everyone, which hopefully dictates a healthy cult following in the future, and an appearance in some kind of retrospective film festival alongside Plague Dogs and Animal Farm. The Blu-ray is stunning in terms of details and colour quality, while the DTS-HD track belts out the Oscar nominated score beautifully. The extras are fun and fulfilling, though the lack of commentary track is a bit confusing based on Anderson’s strong showing on the format in the past.

Reviewer Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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