When it was released back in the fall of 2009, Fantastic Mr. Fox (out today in a new DVD and Blu-ray special edition from the Criterion Collection) seemed a peculiar detour in the career of co-writer/director Wes Anderson — why on earth was this idiosyncratic indie auteur making what was, by any measure, a kids’ movie? It was a question being asked elsewhere that fall as well; Spike Jonze had just released Where the Wild Things Are, his long-in-the-making adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s iconic picture book, while Martin Scorsese had just announced his next film, a family-friendly adaptation of the young adult novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret. But what is fascinating about Anderson’s film (and Jonze’s, and, ultimately, Scorsese’s) is how little he had to adjust his vision to make a “kids’ movie.” In fact, there is an argument to be made that Fantastic Mr. Fox may be the purest distillation of Anderson’s specific, inimitable style.
It’s an argument that could certainly be pursued by Anderson’s detractors, who maintain that his filmography is stunted by that style, insisting his meticulously detailed production design suffocates his pictures and keeps his characters at a distance. It’s a silly argument, of course; this is merely a filmmaker who likes to invent an entire world for his stories to in habit. Or, more accurately, he takes great pains to readjust the physical world to match the cultural prism he sees it through.
In the case of Mr. Fox, a loose adaptation of Roald Dahl’s 1970 children’s book (the picture opens with the book in a reader’s hands — newly adorned with the phrase “Now a major motion picture”), Anderson had the rare opportunity to build that world from the ground up. Dahl’s story of foxes, badgers, possums, and the like was created via (primarily) stop-motion animation, using real elements in miniature. And thus the design elements that had become such a cornerstone of Anderson’s cinematic profile were, this time, entirely under his control. And the innovative filmmaker made his own alterations to the traditions of animation; the stop-motion scenes were shot at 12 frames per second instead of the customary 24 (giving the images their wonderful jerky-yet-somehow-fluid look, best observed in the slight but subtle movements of the fur), and the voice performances (featuring megastars like George Clooney and Meryl Streep alongside such Anderson regulars as Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, and Owen Wilson) were done in real environments, rather than the stuffy confines of a recording studio.
But most importantly, Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach mated Dahl’s breezy storytelling with Anderson’s own worldview, and came up with a fusion that was absolutely faithful to both. In a way, making a family film allows Anderson to simplify his work to its essential essence; as Matt Zoller Seitz writes in his recent (and excellent) book The Wes Anderson Collection, “Mr. Fox clarifies the essence of Anderson’s artistry, boiling his themes and aesthetic down to storybook-simple moments and gestures.” The trademark visual flourishes are firmly in place: on-screen text, direct overhead shots, inventive foregrounds, elaborate side tracking shots (both horizontal and vertical). The classic rock cues are present (this time, two Beach Boys and one Stones), as is the customary dry wit (here augmented by occasional, bizarre, and hilarious outbursts from his characters that serve as sporadic reminders that they are, in fact, animals).
Yet Anderson doesn’t merely replicate the surface pleasures of his live-action pictures; he’s delving into similar thematic waters as well. Ash is a teenage outcast in the Max Fischer mold (voiced by the same actor, even); Mr. Fox is both insensitive to his son and blissfully ignorant of that insensitivity (á la Royal Tenenbaum); the familial rivalry between Ash and cousin Kristofferson echoes Anderson’s previous picture, The Darjeeling Limited. And the film is, on some level, a further exploration of the questions of masculinity that reverberate throughout Anderson’s entire filmography; Mr. Fox is, at his basest level, a wild animal, burdened by those instincts and desires, but he is also a husband and father, and those qualities are more vital to both himself and those around him.
In his introduction to The Wes Anderson Collection, Michael Chabon writes of the sneering dismissal of “artificiality” in Anderson’s works, “at times with the implication, simple-minded and profoundly mistaken, that a high degree of artifice is somehow inimical to seriousness, to honest emotion, to so-called authenticity. All movies, of course, are equally artificial; it’s just that some are more honest about it than others.” And when approached through Chabon’s insightful rubric, it may very well be that Fantastic Mr. Fox is Anderson’s most honest movie of all.