Wes Anderson’s movie adaptation of Fantastic Mr. Fox, my own personal favorite of beloved children’s author’s Roald Dahl’s ouvre, is not quite fantastic, but it is as charming and quirky and self-aware as might be expected of Anderson. Or Dahl, for that matter.
The basic premise of Fantastic Mr Fox (no period in the Dahl original) revolves around a dashing young fox who finds himself at war with three local farmers, who attempt to dig him, his wife, and his four Fox children out of their home in retaliation for his wide-ranging depredations. Anderson veers wildly from Dahl’s short, not-so-sweet, very direct tale (or tail) of a fox beset, adding marital tensions, a caper plot, and some romance. Also, much of the focus is shifted to center on Mr. Fox’s emo, inadequate school-age son Ash (Jason Schwartzman) and his rival, cousin Kristofferson (Eric Anderson), “a natural,” as Mr. Fox insists on describing him. These two characters, and the young vixen Agnes (Juman Malouf, the obligatory Thing With Spots in this Wes Anderson movie—more amusing than usual because Anderson gets in a little self-mockery, with his sly asides about self-conscious trademarks) take the place of the interchangeable four Fox children of the book, adding striking personalities and subject positions.
Other additional characters include an incongruous and possibly brain-damaged opossum, Kylie, quite intentionally out of place in the English countryside. Since the book is a slender, heavily-illustrated volume, these additions are needful: even with them, the move clocks in at an equally slender and un-butt-straining hour and twenty-odd minutes.
And it’s quirky. Did I mention it was quirky? It’s quirky. It’s quirky from the casting—caper movie all the way, with George Clooney and Meryl Streep voicing Mr. and Mrs. Fox, while Michael Gambon voices the alcoholic and murderous Farmer Bean and Willem Dafoe voices a switchblade-wielding rotter of a rat—to the design (schizophrenically detailed stop-motion animation with furry puppets in this era of CGI slickness)—to the narrative, which converts Dahl’s scathing ecological fable into a parable about marriage, friendship, and valuing others for what they are and not trying to force them into roles for which they are unsuited. It marries caper movie with mannered absurdism, and it somehow makes it work, in part by being very soft-spoken and understated through all its wacky hijinks.
We get chapter titles, splash images, extended sequences of animation reminiscent of a video game, and deadpan humor–“I can fit through there.” “How?” “Because I’m small.” The animals inhabit a peculiar world in which they paint landscapes and run newspapers and wear underwear printed with superhero logos and yet remind themselves now and again that they are in fact wild animals, and must be respected as such. They have surprising skills, and are surprisingly likeable.
On the other paw, the sexual politics of the movie are dated, feeling more appropriate to 1970, when the book was released, than to the real world of today. The pacing is a bit awkward, and there are places where the flow of the narrative felt impeded by the jokes, homages, damning bits of social commentary, and sidelong analyses of human psychology. I suspect most of those things will be lost on the target audience—the two young girls behind me seemed to agree with me that the book was better.
But then again, for the price of admission you get a fox in Underoos, and Meryl Streep as Mrs. Fox calmly informing Mr. Fox that she is about to lose her temper, and a good deal of deadpan humor and psychological cleverness involving Mr. Fox and the reasons he does what he does.
Overall, I recommend this, although it might be more fun for the grownups than for kids who love the source material.
Elizabeth Bear is the Hugo and Sturgeon award-winning author of over fifty short stories and more than a dozen science fiction and fantasy novels, including By The Mountain Bound and the forthcoming Chill. She is a participant in the ongoing interactive hyperfiction environment Shadow Unit, and she likes things with spots.