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At last, a new Wes Anderson movie that doesn't grate on the nerves. This reviewer was amused by Anderson's endearing Bottle Rocket but never warmed up to Rushmore or The Royal Tenenbaums, both of which seemed to indulge privileged people as they celebrate their insensitivity. With last year's Fantastic Mr. Fox Anderson goes off in an interesting new direction, adapting Roald Dahl's children's book. It's a reasonably faithful adaptation augmented with Anderson's familiar character quirks, the ones that can seem so annoying in his live action pictures. Anderson and co-screenwriter Noah Baumbach's droll dialogue sounds wonderful coming from a family of foxes. Mr. Fox (voice: George Clooney) is urbane, sophisticated and an incorrigible criminal. But that's okay: he's just a wild animal, after all.
At first glimpse it may look as if Mr. Anderson has taken on an animated feature to score a fast success; animation sells these days. But this is stop-motion animation, a once-lost film art enjoying a resurgence in quality productions like Coraline. It seems that computer animation has renewed interest in all forms of animation. Beyond the live-action / animation fantasies of Ray Harryhausen, stop-motion was just a few years ago associated with kitschy TV fare from Rankin-Bass, like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. The characters in Fantastic Mr. Fox are three-dimensional puppets complete with fur and clothing, and they're given marvelous character shadings to fit the often low-key dialogue script. Mr. Fox and his family are a casual crowd that exchange light banter over breakfast. They read the paper and jog for exercise. Mr. Fox and his Mrs. (voice: Meryl Streep) are a vulpine William Powell and Myrna Loy.
Dahl's story blends survival in the wild with the bourgeois problems of suburbia. To project an upscale self-image he can't afford, Mr. Fox buys a classy tree to live under. This choice bit of real estate also puts him within striking distance of three food processing plants owned by rich human villains: Bean, Boggis and Bunce (voices: Michael Gambon, Robin Hurlstone, Hugo Guinness). Although Mr. Fox promised his wife that he'd never steal another chicken, he soon has the opossum Kylie (v: Wallace Wolodarsky) secretly helping him raid the three farms. They dope the guard dogs with spiked blueberries and cleverly evade Bean's security guard rat, Rat (v: Willem Dafoe). Unfortunately, the three farmers respond by banding together in an all-out effort to eradicate Mr. Fox. The onslaught with guns and digging tools forces all the field animals to retreat to the sewer system of the nearby city. Mr. Fox loses his tail to a shotgun blast and his neighbors blame him for bringing disaster down on their heads. Worst of all, Mrs. Fox gives him a good scratch for lying to her.
Fantastic Mr. Fox is consistently funny, both in the stylized animal behaviors of its characters and their more human, anthropomorphosed antics. Mr. Fox may as well be Ozzie Nelson, with an elitist attitude and a secret life as a cat burglar. George Clooney's mellifluous voice is even more charming when placed in the jaws of a wily Fox. Meryl Streep makes less of an impression but only because her part is so much smaller. Running parallel to the thievery theme is Mr. Fox's relationship with his disaffected son Ash (v: Jason Schwartzman). Just when Ash needs to amount to something in his father's eyes, along comes cousin Kristofferson Silverfox (v: Eric Anderson), a natural athlete, centered yoga adept and judo expert. Kristofferson even attracts the girl Ash would like to get to know better.
Although really much ado about nothing, the story strikes a nice comedic balance. As with Disney's Pluto, guard dogs are just dumb mutts, whereas a badger (v: Bill Murray) is a lawyer and a rabbit is a gourmet chef. Anderson salts in a few in-jokes, such as some borrowed dialogue from the movie Rebel Without a Cause. As in Roald Dahl's original story, the three humans are mean cusses with no redeeming values whatsoever. By the end of the show, the animals' triumph over their human enemies is something to celebrate, even when Mr. Fox graduates to raiding supermarkets. Prices being what they are, I fantasize about raiding my local supermarket. When Mr. Fox sees an unspoiled wild wolf on a far off rock, he raises his fist in a salute of solidarity: Up The Rebels. Now let's rock out to some vintage tunes.
Fox Home Video's Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy of Fantastic Mr. Fox really pops in a Hi-Def monitor, with its every amusing design making a maximum impact. The warm color range and tactile textures give rural vistas and character close-ups the impact of a picture book.
The movie's wonderful animated models and elaborate settings are as much fun as the story and the characters, and the disc comes with a battery of featurettes that allow us to marvel at what must have been millions of man-hours' worth of delicate art craft. Everything on screen has to be made by hand, of course, which makes every fanciful detail from fox fur to furniture seem a minor miracle. The literal battalion of artisans at work are fascinating to watch ... as there can't be a steady flow of stop-motion work, we wonder what they did before signing on.
The extras emphasize Wes Anderson's participation in every planning aspect of Fantastic Mr. Fox, countering some snotty media inferences that he had nothing to do with the making of the movie, and communicated with the production from afar, by email. Without such a large group of animators working concurrently the show would have taken years to film, so Anderson couldn't possibly be hands-on. For that matter, stop-motion animators must be able to concentrate on their work without interruption. Anderson's remote supervision therefore sounds like a blessing to all concerned. We get to see Bill Murray visiting the puppet shop and admiring the tiny character models used in long shots, for scenes like the hilarious Whackbat game. Another extra takes us to the late Roald Dahl's country home, where the designers photographed the author's study to provide furnishing details for Mr. Fox's abode.
Audio tracks are accessible in Spanish, French and Portuguese, with subs in those languages plus Cantonese and Mandarin. The added DVD disc will be attractive to viewers planning to upgrade to Blu-ray. I have to admit that, at least in my limited circle of contacts, I know nobody who has downloaded a Digital Copy. I guess one might want to do that, to watch the show on an airplane flight or something. This version says that it can be downloaded to either a Mac or a PC.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Fantastic Mr. Fox Blu-ray rates:
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