Moreso even than Where the Wild Things Are, Wes Anderson’s stop-motion whimsy Fantastic Mr. Fox plays like an art film more for adults than for kids (not to say that kids won’t also enjoy it). We may be watching talking foxes and badgers, but they have very grown-up issues. Mr. Fox (raffishly voiced by George Clooney) used to steal chickens for a living; he was a pro at it, and he loved it. But after his wife (Meryl Streep) became pregnant, he swore to go legit as a newspaper columnist. Fox’s disreputable past, though, keeps calling to him, and soon enough he lapses back into a life of crime, to the chagrin of three local farmers who’ll stop at nothing to kill Fox and his associates.
Like every other Wes Anderson film, Fantastic Mr. Fox is about looking back wistfully on one’s youth, one’s glory days, pre-responsibilities, when things weren’t as complicated. Really, I get the sense that Anderson has been working his way up to stop-motion: all his films unfold in a rigorously controlled, hermetic universe, and it’s only a short step to filming a miniature world where literally nothing happens that isn’t physically manipulated frame by frame. (Anderson is credited as the sole director, and certainly Fox is thematically of a piece with his other work, but let’s not forget animation director Mark Gustafson and his army of animators, without whom the movie would remain confined to Anderson’s sketchbook.)
The throughline is simple: Fox wants food and safety for himself and his community — as simple as a Bugs Bunny short, really. So we’re pulled right in, and as the saying goes, fairly soon we forget we’re watching stop-motion, even though the technique calls attention to itself. The ads are calling Fox “groundbreaking,” though I think what that means is that Anderson — rather than relying on slick CGI like everyone else — has chosen a consciously old-school style, one that doesn’t cheat or hide the manipulation; the animals are designed with real fur, usually a no-no in stop-motion because you can’t control its movement from frame to frame. So there is some wildness here after all. The style, like the theme, is poised gracefully between order and chaos.
The TV commercials, of course, emphasize the goofy kid-pleasing moments, but most of Fox is gratifyingly mellow. The voice actors, including Anderson mainstays Bill Murray, Owen Wilson and Jason Schwartzman, speak to each other as if they were in a quirky adult comedy; nobody falsely projects, sweatily calling out to the back row of inattentive children. The color scheme is radiantly autumnal, not the usual banging-together of discordant hues that kiddie-flick animators think will hook the eye. The compositions are classic Anderson, painstakingly symmetrical. The soundtrack is Anderson’s typical callback to ‘60s tunes, including the Beach Boys (used surprisingly unobtrusively) and, at one point of tension, the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man.” That song, the last one the Stones played at the fateful Altamont concert, kicked up a bit of fuss in its day for its lyrics espousing revolution, and now it graces a children’s film produced by 20th Century-Fox. I can see the angry letter-writing campaign and boycotts from here. Though, again, it isn’t really a children’s film — but tell that to Glenn Beck and his acolytes.