News

‘It’s a Limbo’: Grad Students, Frustrated by Harvard’s Response to Bullying Complaint, Petition for Reform

News

Community Groups Promote Vaccine Awareness Among Cambridge Residents of Color

News

Students Celebrate Upcoming Harvard-Yale Game at CEB Spirit Week

News

Harvard Epidemiologist Michael Mina Resigns, Appointed Chief Science Officer at eMed

News

Harvard Likely to Loosen Campus Covid Restrictions in the Spring, Garber Says

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Dir. Wes Anderson (Fox Searchlight) -- 3.5 STARS

By Ryan J. Meehan, Crimson Staff Writer

Wes Anderson has spent a decade as one of America’s most important filmmakers, and the better part of that same decade shaking the good will earned by the films that gave him his reputation. Anderson’s characters—idiosyncratic, often emotionally opaque and depressive—inhabit worlds whose visual splendor assumes the sentiment, both delicate and deliberate, of an auteur—his awareness of the history of cinema giving way to reverence and innovation in equal parts. His films identify with a generation still in turmoil over lost innocence and the transition between adolescence and adulthood. He crystallized that ethos in 2001 with “The Royal Tenenbaums,” his masterpiece. Since then, Anderson has done little more than replicate that film’s model, to no more than occasional success.

It could be that the creative slump punctuated by 2007’s stunningly bad “The Darjeeling Limited” is what makes Anderson’s sixth feature such a warm surprise. It could also be that “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is a light, lovely, and clever comedy that finds the director’s vision coinciding with pure entertainment for the first time in years. A stop-motion animated riff on Roald Dahl’s classic book, the film reunites Anderson with frequent screenwriting collaborator Noah Baumbach (director of “The Squid and the Whale”), casting George Clooney as the title character in a war for land and life against a trio of demonic factory-farmers. Clooney is the latest in a line of charismatic paterfamilias—common in the director’s films—whose hubris outstrips any thought of the well-being of those around him. Fox steals, sabotages, and generally goads the farmers into hunting him and his kin almost to the point of extinction, the reason for which never becomes totally clear. “I’m a wild animal,” he tells his wife and the audience. But that never sits quite right.

To be sure, the market for films typically branded ‘for kids’ has expanded in recent years, and “Fantastic Mr. Fox” anticipates an audience ready to take the film on its own terms. But in the spectrum between the aestheticized nostalgia of Spike Jonze’ “Where the Wild Things Are” and the ambitious visual and emotional scope of the latest releases from Pixar Studios, the film feels slightly ill at ease. By any standard other than its source material, “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is not a kids’ movie. The dialogue is packed with ironic jokes and self-referential winks that sail over children of the appropriate age to read Dahl, and while its narrative rarely stagnates (at barely an hour and a half, it can’t afford to), most of the film’s action operates a shade below that of an average episode of “Wallace and Grommit.”

But on those terms that it asks—merely those of an open mind—the film has considerable mileage. “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is a small wonder of mise en scène, richly crafted and painstakingly choreographed, allowing for the total control over composition to which Anderson always seemed to aspire in his earlier films. Anderson’s decision to shoot an animated film comes as no real surprise. It’s the natural end of a fascination with vibrant color schemes in his films in general—a runoff from his French New Wave influence—and specifically the stop-motion footage he experimented with in “The Life Aquatic.”

Live actors in a Wes Anderson movie put on a sort of theater of artifice; faces become masks, from behind which the humanity of a character can either struggle or fail to emerge. Perhaps the greatest failure of “The Darjeeling Limited” was in reversing this formula instead of developing on it. But the utterly blank faces of Fox, his family, and friends—posturing, wry, flummoxed, or brooding countenances as they fit their respective characters—allow for development that’s left totally up to the script. Fox’s son Ash, voiced by Jason Schwartzman, another perennial Anderson collaborator, strikes the perfect timbre between obnoxious humor and endearing awkwardness. Schwartzman’s delivery is appropriately adolescent, all but reprising a more frustrated Max Fischer—the protagonist of “Rushmore,” the movie that made both him and Anderson famous. The dynamic that Ash shares with his parents, his schoolmates, and particularly his cousin add charming wrinkles where “Fantastic Mr. Fox” could have been dangerously slick.

Of course, the question of a moral framework is more problematic. Anderson’s work has always been deeply moralizing—whether on the resilience of family or the fidelity of close friendship—but here he trivializes Fox’s recklessness. The casual way that he endangers and deceives everyone in the film, or how he neglects his own son to an almost condemnable degree, is never answered for. Instead, “Fantastic Mr. Fox”—dramatically revised from Dahl’s book—ends ambiguously, with its characters unchanged and the danger yet present. More puzzling than it is substantial, it doesn’t negate what was, until its very end, a happy detour for an artist desperately in need of some fresh scenery.

—Staff writer Ryan J. Meehan can be reached at rmeehan@fas.harvard.edu.

Want to keep up with breaking news? Subscribe to our email newsletter.

Tags
Film