In a way, all of Wes Anderson’s films have been kids’ films. His charming efforts (Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums) and his more recent, more irritating entries (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Darjeeling Limited) all consider less than fully grown-up sons frustrated by their fathers’ distance or absence. Fantastic Mr. Fox offers more of the same, and yet this time Anderson’s visual gifts, his dry wit, and, most of all, his skewed whimsy work perfectly.
Tenenbaums felt new and retro at the same time, and so does Mr. Fox, with its gloriously low-tech stop-motion animation in which lovingly detailed puppets are posed one frame at a time and then photographed. The process may be painstaking to assemble, but the result looks cheerfully carefree. The movie, based on a story by Roald Dahl (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), is a throwback to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and the other stop-motion animation kiddie specials from the 1960s and 1970s that Anderson’s generation grew up with.
The title character, nicely voiced by George Clooney, is a born schemer and inveterate chicken thief who, at the outset, is so eager to demonstrate to Mrs. F (the equally fine Meryl Streep) that he understands exactly how the fox trap he is outsmarting works that he gets both of them stuck. Caged, Mr. Fox vows to give up his poultry-purloining ways and get a new line of work (though an equally disreputable one — journalism) so that the two of them can raise their son (Jason Schwartzman) in a nice tree together.
The awkward son, Ash, who fancies himself a superhero but lacks his father’s physical grace, feels neglected by his dad, especially when his cousin Kristofferson (Eric Anderson, the director’s brother) comes to stay with the family and immediately proves himself a swashbuckler cut from the same cloth as the old man. Meanwhile, much as he’d like to be a model father, Mr. Fox starts a secret campaign to resume his chicken thievery — this time on an epic scale meant to humiliate the nefarious farmers Boggis, Bunce, and Bean. Mrs. Fox won’t be pleased if she finds out. Worse, Mr. Fox takes along Kristofferson for the caper instead of his own boy.
Anderson stages Mr. Fox’s raids (which also involve a dim-witted opossum) with madcap tongue-in-cheek brilliance that will please older kids, though the humor in the movie is probably too dry for kids younger than thirteen. (Also, don’t bring a kid who is likely to be inspired to climb over an electrified fence the way the heroes do, their bodies hilariously X-rayed by the voltage as they climb).
The movie is short and it spends a lot of time stuck underground after the farmers trap the animals and their friends (including Bill Murray as a badger who gives Mr. Fox legal advice), forcing them to burrow ever deeper with little hope of breaking the siege. But Anderson keeps the pace lively by supporting his strange exchanges of dialogue (the badger claims, out of nowhere, to be a demolitions expert) and many funny visual set pieces (such as the scenes in which the gang’s network of tunnels is shown in cross section as they bustle) with rousing little action scenes and a bright soundtrack. The farmers, for instance, launch their attack on the seemingly helpless but actually far cleverer animals to the strains of the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man.” Most other directors would have used the song as an underdog anthem, but Anderson, for all his flaws, never stumbles into cliché.
Anderson’s sensibility, which has so often and so justly been mocked (YouTube buzzes with parodies of his work, all of them emphasizing the studied hipster nonchalance and isn’t-this-cute pieces of visual flair), may be the perfect match for Dahl. Who was Willy Wonka if not a cosmic hipster, a precious perfectionist, and an irony-attuned dandy? And making a film for kids means Anderson has to keep things popping (sparing us the longueurs of, say, The Darjeeling Limited) and keep things light (so no wrist-slashing scenes as in Tenenbaums). Anderson is still fueled by childlike whimsy, but in Fantastic Mr. Fox it brings nothing but grateful smiles.