IN "FANTASTIC MR. FOX," Wes Anderson finally admits that he's an animator.
His recent live-action dramas have been live in name only, as Anderson has asserted control of every detail — his famously kitschy and elaborate production design, even the actors' mannerisms.
In "The Darjeeling Limited" and "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou," you get the cutesy outfits, tonally managed performances, fanciful backdropsand the sense that Anderson sees the movie set as his own personal diorama — posing and dressing the figures as he sees fit.
"Fantastic Mr. Fox" finds Anderson doing exactly that — using stop-motion animation to adapt Roald Dahl's story of a dapper fox who poaches from three unfriendly farmers.
The art form lends itself to Anderson's style — an accumulation of carefully considered details that assemble into a complementary whole. Anderson dabbled with stop-motion to provide transitions for "The Life Aquatic" and showed a knack for it that gets fuller expression in "Mr. Fox."
A highlight — to suggest smoke rising from an explosion, Anderson and his animators create an enlarging pile of gray cotton balls. It's a great image, the kind that's unique to stop-motion, and one of several delightful bits in "Mr. Fox."
The director's complete control over his visual world seems to have given him the confidence to allow actors more elbow room — the vocal work from his A-list cast is better (certainly more lively) than most of the performances in any of his recent live-action movies.
George Clooney plays Mr. Fox, a born poacher having trouble conforming to the domestic wishes of Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep), who wants him to quit the dangerous life of the thief. It's a career change seconded by his cautious lawyer (Bill Murray).
Mr. Fox plays along — he buys a house, takes a job, but at night he's stealing the farmers' chickens and drinking their cider, prompting the aggrieved farmers (led by Michael Gambon) to formulate a ruthless counterattack.
Anderson and writer Noah Baumbach broaden the story to include a sibling-ish rivalry between Mr. Fox's clumsy son Ash (Jason Schwartzman) and his naturally gifted cousin (Eric Anderson) — the sort of material that both Anderson ("Bottle Rocket") and Baumbach ("The Squid and the Whale") know well, and do well.
Anderson makes the material his own, which will sit better with fans of the director than with devotees of Dahl, whose story of wild animals honoring their true natures morphs, in Anderson's hands, into yet another ode to being "different." (In Andersonville, this often means affectation — witness Mr. Fox's tiresome whistle, borrowed from Hawkeye Pierce.)
Oh well. "Fantastic Mr. Fox" is certainly different from Anderson's recent stuff, and that's all good. *
Produced by Allison Abbate, Scott Rudin, Wes Anderson, Jeremy Dawson, directed by Wes Anderson, written by Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach, music by Alexandre Desplat, distributed by 20th Century Fox.