A stop-motion animation adaptation of a somewhat lesser-known children's book by Charlie and the Chocolate Factory author Roald Dahl, Fantastic Mr. Fox opens with a bit of text from the book and a static shot of a worn library copy before revealing its richly envisioned fictional world. But what follows suggests that director and co-screenwriter Wes Anderson's nostalgia might be more for his own childhood experience of the book — the object itself, the library where it was found, the impressionable kid who found it, etc. — than for Dahl's story, because Anderson, the director of Rushmore and The Royal Tennenbaums, takes the central conceit of Dahl's slim volume, most of its characters, and some of its situations and transforms it into a quintessential Wes Anderson movie.
As in the book, Fantastic Mr. Fox concerns the title character's thievery from farmers Boggis, Bunce, and Bean, and the blowback that it causes. But Anderson fleshes out the family life and motivations of his protagonist (voiced by George Clooney). Here, Mr. Fox is a charming rogue who promises to go straight after he and his pregnant missus are captured — temporarily — in the commission of raiding a chicken coop. Two years — 12 fox years — later, Mr. Fox is working as a newspaper columnist and living in a hole with Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) and son Ash (Anderson regular Jason Schwartzman), but longs for more. This leads first to a risky real estate venture and then to "one last bag job" that sets the film's siege and heist plots in motion.
Mr. Fox becomes a quintessential Anderson character, with echoes of Royal Tennenbaum, Rushmore's Max Fisher, and, perhaps most of all, Bottle Rocket's Dignan. He's a daydreamer and a schemer whose primary motivation is simply to make life more interesting, and Anderson gives him a yearning, aspirational spirit common to so many of his characters. Anderson also builds a familiar but richer-than-ever subplot between Mr. Fox and his only son, Ash (the book includes a brood of small foxes, none with distinctive personalities), who aches to please his father.
Also Andersonian is the erudite, playful dialogue, a quality not un-common in Anderson's indie-identified corner of the film world, but with which Anderson's characters are merely elegant exteriors designed to cloak deeper feelings. And Fantastic Mr. Fox thrives on the deadpan timing used in Anderson's best work to set those emotional undercurrents in motion.
If this doesn't sound like much of a kid's movie, well, it isn't. Kids may enjoy its fascinating visuals and zippy action, but the film's sly humor and emotional "subtext" (a word the film itself deploys) are designed for an older audience. As is often said of good animated films, it works on multiple levels, but not because of easy jokes packed with pop-culture references. This union of Dahl and Anderson sensibilities is otherwise self-contained.
And those visuals: Anderson breaks from the computer-dominated world of American animated features with a tactile design scheme that sets expressive models against handcrafted backdrops that evoke a precocious kid's art project. Anderson's films have always been noted for their detailed visual design, but this credit is limited too often to acknowledging Anderson's cleverness and intricacy, sometimes by way of a backhanded compliment. What is missed is how much character and emotional information is conveyed in Anderson's mise-en-scene. So it is here.
Recent Anderson films The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited were partial successes, and the filmmaker's very specific aesthetic seemed to be wearing a little thin, even among some of his fans. No more. Fantastic Mr. Fox is a brilliant, snappy reinvention of the Anderson style.