Roald Dahl really is a pretty good source for film. Yes, his books were much admired in my boyhood, whether it be Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or James and the Giant Peach. But more than simply fun – the books had a scary edge. The children were in a world of grownups – but not ordinary grownups – but true dotty freaks. Whether this was supposed to evoke the kindred feelings of a strange grownup world to children I am not sure (but indeed makes a neat explanation), but it evokes a fantastic, bizarre, peculiar sort of universe.
Fantastic Mr. Fox is one of the Dahl books I knew but had not read. But given who it is – the whimsy and neat strangeness was expected – add further the direction by Wes Anderson among the whimsiest of directors – it is hard not to have expectations. Indeed from the very start, with its King Kong circa 1933 caliber of stop action animation (this is true retro) – the visuals evoke old school – like a Sesame Street interlude segment on steroids. The chase scenes and animation of the characters through the sets are similarly kitch-shoddy. It is a strange but perfect visual choice. The very crude ways they depict the fox’s digging, or the way the fur ripples – as trite as it sounds, it’s a lot of fun.
OK, OK, OK – what about the movie itself? Indeed, Anderson has adapted the Dahl story as a modern sitcom about foxes. Mr. Fox (George Clooney) is a rambunctious soul who stole chickens in his youth. His main companion is his girlfriend when one day, they get caught – and their narrow escape leads to the end of his hunting days. We flash forward years to well into Mr. and Mrs. Fox’s marriage. They have a mopey, adolescent son (who almost necessarily is played by Jason Schwartzmann) and Mr. Fox is a local seemingly community sized newspaper columnist – about as far from the thrill of chicken hunting as one can get. At this point Mr. Fox is set up as a Ralph Kramden type – and indeed he is the schemer Ralph is, without the gruffness (which would have been fun in its own way). Also like Ralph, Mr. Fox is trying to get his family to move up in the world, from the foxholes to a tree.
Of course for a news columnist’s salary, good luck being able to live in a tree. But Fox finds a deal – and even better, sees three farmers – and all of the farmers’ wares. He consults with his attorney Badger (the invaluable Bill Murray), buys over his head, and moves the family in. But before too long – his scheme is hatched to get back in the thievery game – for the old fox to show he still has it. So, put simply the plot is a cross between The Honeymooners and Unforgiven (if that sentence has been written before, please tell me). I won’t spoil the plot more – although it is fairly predictable in the narrative traditions quoted, but that does not mean that it is n0t fun. What I liked most was the subversiveness of the genres Anderson employs – especially how he gets around censors and toys with some post-modern touches. That said, the movie is decidedly more smile-funny than laugh. But it’s pleasantness is undeniable.