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Review

Family film earns fantastic title

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December 4, 2009

For the second time in as many months a young and gifted filmmaker has used puppetry and rampant imagination to transport audiences to a tangible land of make believe and palpable kids-pired wonderment. Just 40 days after Spike Jonze sailed us to “Where the Wild Things Are,” art-house auteur Wes Anderson tackles Roald Dahl’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox” with taciturn wit, tactile brevity and some of the downright most impressive stop-motion animation ever put to screen.

Dahl’s source material is the perfect fodder for Anderson (who co-wrote the screenplay with Noah Baumbach) as it centers around Mr. Fox (voiced with nonchalant sophistication and charm by George Clooney), a dysfunctional father that rivals any of those present in Anderson’s past repertoire. Fox used to be the foul of the fowl world, but a close encounter with a fox trap leaves him promising Mrs. Fox (a delightfully sly Meryl Streep) that he’ll settle down, get a safe job and finally be a present parent to Ash (Jason Schwartzmen, who captures both humor and heartache through his vocal dexterity alone).

Twelve fox years later, tired of writing a newspaper no one reads and suffering from a sense of thwarted ambition, Mr. Fox battles his veritable midlife crisis by buying real estate in a tree hole across from three local farmers, Boggis, Bunce and Bean, immortalized by local schoolchildren as “three horrible crooks, so different in looks, [who are] nonetheless equally mean.”

Mr. Fox learns this the hard way when he slips back into the habit of dining in on takeout chicken. And on vegetables. And on alcoholic cider. The farmers retaliate, charging the Fox’s tree intent on the kill. They even go so far as to shoot off Mr. Fox’s tail. The act causes the family to start tunneling to escape the farmers escalating attempts at retribution.

Anderson uses Dahl’s narrative as a springboard, but he makes the story his own by shifting the focus from a simple story about personified foxes to a complex, comical investigation of social and familial relationships. As things unfold, it becomes clear that Anderson isn’t so much interested in finishing the manifest story, but in delving into the intense psychological motivations that drive this fractured fairytale.

The question parents will ask is whether “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is a children’s movie. The film has omi- nous undertones, a layer of darkness made up of ethical and moral ambiguity. The subject matter will most certainly contain elements that will confuse kids, maybe even scare them, but that is what pushes Fox over into greatness. Perhaps the film’s most prolific message is for children, to remind them that they have an entire lifetime ahead of them.

Not everyone will like “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” which is part of the film’s charm. It will be debated for a long time to come. Whether or not the test of time proves this fox to top Anderson’s filmography is yet to be seen, but whatever the case may be, this visual and mental treat is like no other animated feature you’ve ever seen. Like it or hate it, it deserves to be seen.

Ken Weigend is an alumnus of UW-River Falls. He was editor of the Student Voice during spring semester 2010.