What exactly is it that a film director does? Try to conjure up a stereotypical image and you’ll most likely picture somebody positioned just behind the camera, holding a bullhorn and sporting a look of intense concentration—which isn’t wrong, exactly, but can be somewhat misleading. What a director actually does is make decisions, thereby shaping the material in what will hopefully turn out, if he or she has any kind of vision, to be a uniquely compelling way. Fantastic Mr. Fox, Wes Anderson’s delightfully idiosyncratic stop-motion adaptation of the Roald Dahl children’s classic, may be the ultimate test case for this hypothesis. By his own admission, Anderson was rarely if ever on the London set, communicating his instructions to the crew mostly by phone and e-mail from Paris. And yet the movie that some claim he “didn’t really direct” sports the exact same look, feel, flavor and sensibility as Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. It’s a Weswork through and through.
So much so, in fact, that those seeking a faithful regurgitation of Dahl’s book may want to steer clear, especially if the idea was to bring the kids along. Sure, Anderson and his co-writer, Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale), stick to the story’s broad outlines: A thieving fox (voice of George Clooney) gets involved in a protracted war with three farmers whose livestock and cider he’s been stealing. But superimposed onto that narrative skeleton is the same archly melancholy tale of paternal idiocy and adolescent insecurity that’s long been both Anderson and Baumbach’s stock in trade. In particular, they ditch three of Mr. Fox’s four children, leaving him and Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) with only one son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman), and then proceed to torment the poor kid, who yearns for his father’s attention and respect, by having a ludicrously multi-gifted cousin by the improbable name of Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson) come to visit for a spell. Basically, it’s the same old Wes Anderson film, except this time it happens to be talking-animal puppets who are speaking his dialogue and sporting his blazers.
Obviously, one wouldn’t expect the ostentatiously retro-obsessed Anderson to go anywhere near cutting-edge computer animation. Even by the standards of antiquated stop-motion, however, Fantastic Mr. Fox is endearingly rinky-dink—every character and set has been fastidiously art-directed, but the movements are anything but fluid. Burrowing through dirt is depicted as not unlike swimming, and when the gang breaks into a dance routine (which happens more than once), they all hop about with the random, what-the-hell rhythms of a toy in the hands of a hyperactive 8-year-old. To the extent that the film has an emotional punch, it’s largely due to the odd disjunction between its childlike appearance and its fundamentally adult tenor, though that’s not quite enough, in the end, to keep the whole enterprise from feeling a tad hollow.
Still, that’s merely to say that it falls short of Anderson’s very best work. Fantastic Mr. Fox may not pluck at your heartstrings, but for sheer goofy entertainment value, it’s hard to beat, at least for those of us on its director’s distinctive wavelength. (Again, I wouldn’t recommend this film as a diversion for little kids, who may wind up baffled and bored.) In my favorite bit, Mr. Fox and his partner in crime, Opossum (a marvelously deadpan performance by Wally Wolodarsky, whose surname Anderson has used in previous films), pull off a burglary that’s seen only via a bank of security monitors, with each step in the plan unfolding left to right from one screen to the next; it’s a geometrical tour de force of which Piet Mondrian would be envious. More than that, it’s quintessential Wes Anderson, and that in itself is plenty fantastic.