It is very rare these days for a director working for big Hollywood studios to have his own visual style: All in all there maybe are a handful of directors whose work one can actually identify by just taking in the visuals, i.e. without having recourse to story or dialogue, not even to mention credit rolls or IMDb and the like.
Among those, Wes Anderson is probably the most consciously stylish – just grab any scene from any of his films and if you have ever watched anything by him before, it won’t take ten second for you to recognise his unique style, often just from his distinct colour scheme alone. And what is even more astonishing is that this holds true even though story-wise Anderson’s films can lie worlds apart – while there are a couple of recurring themes to them (probably most notable father-son conflicts and sibling rivalry, both literal and figuratively), films like Rushmore, The Aquatic Life with Steve Zissou or The Grand Budapest Hotel are all very different from each other both in subject matter and in overall tone.
And then there is Fantastic Mr. Fox, which might very well turn out to be my favourite of his films (I have not seen all of them yet) which is something else again, namely an animated movie based on a novel by Roald Dahl with anthropomorphic animals as its protagonists.
The film starts off with Mr. Fox and his wife Felicity pulling off an audacious bird-stealing caper – or almost pulling it off, as Mr. Fox’s overconfidence lands them in a trap at the very last moment and a mortified-looking Mr. Fox promises his wife to end his roguish ways and find turn towards a more solid style of life if they survive this. In an Anderson-typical ellipsis we are not told (yet) how the couple escapes the trap, but instead the film jumps twelve fox-years into the future where Mr. Fox has become a newspaper columnist as well as emphatically stir-crazy. This is also the only scene in the film where he is wearing a tie, and this shows off nicely how important clothing is in this movie, beyond everyone being really well dressed and even beyond its function for characterization (also notice the “Cockscomb Jelly” and “Gosling Jam” Mr. Fox apparently takes with his pancakes).
To escape his normalcy, Mr. Fox first moves from his hole in the ground into a tree, and, after finding out that this makes him the neighbour of the three biggest poultry barons in the county, decides to pull off one final big heist – without, of course, telling his wife about it. He successfully robs all three farmers, in what may be the most hilarious scenes in an already very funny film; it definitely had me in stitches. But of course the farmers find out who the culprit is, and Mr. Fox is forced to realize that his attempt to recapture the spirit and wildness of his youth has brought danger to his whole community when they retaliate with their full, not inconsiderable power.
While Mr. Fox tries to cope with middle age, his son Ash has a hard time growing up – the second major narrative thread of the film deals with Ash’s feeling of not belonging, of being weird and unable to live up to his father’s reputation. Which is not made easier for him by the arrival of his cousin Kristofferson who, as everyone keeps repeating, is “a natural” and succeeds with apparent effortlessness where Ash struggles and more often than not fails.
Fantastic Mr. Fox uses stop-motion animation, the most old-fashioned form of film animation there is, and not once during the 87 minutes it lasts does it attempt to be slick or impress with its technology. What it does impress with, however, is its incredible attention to detail, which is very much a Wes Anderson hallmark. This starts with the sets, who are never only background in a film by Wes Anderson but always fold into the action playing out into the foreground, often establishing a kind of running commentary on events as they unfold. This is combined with a meticulous framing of the film’s images, frequently with a very pronounced sense of symmetry.
This gives his films often the feeling of a theatre performance where the actors are moving on a stage rather than in the world, and Fantastic Mr. Fox with its use of animated figures of course intensifies this impression. One would think that all of this adds up to something highly artificial, and it does, in so far as every single scene in this film is very stylish and thought out down to the last detail. But “artificial” often has connotations of “cold” and “without emotion” and those Fantastic Mr. Fox emphatically is not. For one thing, while it moves from heist movie to Sphaghetti Western and back again, throwing out references to various other genres on the way, it is gloriously entertaining and sublimely hilarious. On the other hand, even when it is on its most over-the-top funny, Fantastic Mr. Fox remains steeped in melancholy, pervaded by a sense of vanitas and ubiquitous mortality that would do every Baroque allegory proud.
That this works so well is not only due to the film’s gorgeous visuals, however – there also is the excellent script (by director Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach) and the great voice actors. George Clooney and Meryl Streep are wonderful together as Mr. Fox and Felicity (making me want to see them together in a live action film) and they are surrounded by the usual lot of Wes Anderson regulars like Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman and Owen Wilson (joined by the director himself and his brother Eric Chase Anderson) and topped off by some brilliant cameos from the likes of Michael Gambon and (especially hilarious as psychotic ninja rat) William Dafoe.
In spite of being animated, Fantastic Mr. Fox should probably not be considered primarily a film for children, as it asks a host of hard questions about age and mortality, about being oneself and being different from others, about being true to oneself and being part of a community, and it does not give answers to them. Indeed, while (hardly a spoiler) the film does have a happy ending its final shot makes it clear (in a way that is both clever and hilarious) that peace and quiet will reign only temporarily. On the other hand, the film is also an awful lot of fun, and hey, what are grown-ups for if not to explain stuff to kids. How knows, you might even learn something yourself while trying to explain to your seven-year old niece what precisely “existentialism” means.