Did you notice? Autumn’s here. I know it’s hard. We’re either sitting in offices, in classrooms, in living rooms, staring at computer screens, or watching FlashForward with ever diminishing enthusiasm, with the curtains closed and the heating cranked for the first time in months.
But with that acrid stench of collected radiator dust, you’re missing the beautiful orange loveliness going on outside (probably). You’ve just not twigged, you were too busy jostling on the bus, packing on the train, or furiously cycling (always cycling). But here’s a tip. If you make one knowing nod to the current season, go and see Fantastic Mr. Fox, Wes Anderson’s adaptation of the Roald Dahl children’s book.
Fantastic Mr. Fox, from the very beginning, posits itself as a perfectly Autumnal film. It is, at its heart, subtly ambiguous, with neither the sunny optimism of summer films, or the ‘chestnuts roasting’ sentimentalism of Christmas cinema, instead exhibiting a wistful, roughshod charm, a fascination with nature, and a wry sense of humour.
Key to this aesthetic is the textured, tactile dimension brought to the film by its stop-motion animation, with figures designed by Corpse Bride artisans MacKinnon and Saunders, photographed by Aardman DP Tristan Oliver, and manipulated at London’s Three Mills studios. Unlike Tim Burton’s 2005 piece, however, Fantastic Mr. Fox isn’t polished to perfection. There is a retro, old-fashioned glow to the whole enterprise, giving the film the welcoming air of a big-hearted labour of love.
While Anderson has brought much to the table with his adaptation of Fantastic Mr. Fox, there is a still an unmistakable kernel of Dahl at the heart of the story. Fox (voiced by George Clooney) is a suave scoundrel, an irresponsible thrill-seeker, introduced on a leafy hilltop to the strains of Disney theme tune The Ballad Of Davy Crockett. He immediately whisks his beloved Felicity (Meryl Streep) away to a nearby farm, to burgle away its prize inhabitants, with a cheeky, twee sequence set to the Brian Wilson tune Heroes And Villains. However, a well placed trap, and a revelation that Felicity is pregnant, puts plenty in perspective.
So, filmic Mr. Fox turns his back on thievery and adventure in the interests of starting a family. Here, Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach (Squid And The Whale, Margot At The Wedding) tactically interweave the rustic jolliness with their own fascination with the over-educated, emotionally dysfunctional families of the American literati.
Mr. Fox develops a career as a society columnist for the local paper (don’t laugh, I once saw a Fox strutting along London’s South Bank, just outside of the Royal Festival Hall, so it’s not entirely without basis), and lives in a community full of suitably middle class, intellectual animal archetypes.
Imagination runs wild, as we are treated to the inner workings of animal society, with Badger the attorney (a top form Bill Murray), a real estate Weasel (Anderson himself), and plenty of others. Extra additions include Fox’s quirky son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman) and nephew Kristofferson (Eric Anderson), through whom Anderson and Baumbach explore one of their favourite topics, the uncertainty of idiosyncratic youth, but in a gleefully off-kilter fashion, as the little foxes – the former a cape-wearing geek, the latter an athletic, yoga-practising stoic – suffer through the trials of animal high school.
Nevertheless, the film finds its most comfortable momentum as Fox is tempted back into one last job, a triple header, fleecing three local farmers – Boggis (Robin Hurlstone), Bunce (Hugo Guinness) and Bean (Michael Gambon) – with the help of trusty friend Kylie the opossum (Wally Wolodarsky), inadvertantly putting the whole community’s stable existence into jeopardy.
It’s a solidly entertaining, joyful ride, driven along by a masterful score from Alexandre Desplat, and featuring wonderful voicework across the board (which is surprising, considering the mix of seasoned and non-professional actors), with Willem Dafoe’s cameo as a sleazy Rat-bandit being an easy highlight.
The only moments where Anderson’s storytelling cap slips involve the film’s quieter moments. When the narrative has to deal with its themes – of family, individuality, responsibility and community – it is slightly clunky, and it is obvious that both writers are far more comfortable with aloof ambiguity, or knotty neuroticism, than picture book wholesomeness.
If you’re the kind that would take offence at any changes to the original book (the ‘biggy’ being that the animals are American, and the humans English), try to calm yourself. Such pettiness is counter-intuitive, especially in this case, as part of the charm and wonder of Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox is in its fusion of styles, outlooks and competencies.
It is hard to deny, as Mr. Fox excitedly rattles off a list of each animal’s Latin species name, and relates their individual traits, that this film wasn’t coming from a place of real enthusiasm for the material. It is a great addition to what has turned out to be a stellar year for animation.
And besides, the clocks go back this weekend, so why not cash in your spare hour with Fantastic Mr. Fox, and enjoy the best 27 minutes currently on offer at the cinema.