Review: 'Fantastic Mr. Fox'

(Four stars)

When Mrs. Fox says there is something kind of fantastic about being different, she could have been referring to Wes Anderson's animated adaptation of Roald Dahl's 1970 children's yarn. Imaginative, quirky and brimming with visual wonder, the tale about a fox that loses his tail -- but gains the love and respect of the animal kingdom -- epitomizes Fantastic-ness.

The storybook enchantment opens with Dahl's poetic introduction to those horrible crooks Boggis, Bunce and Bean -- "one fat, one short, one lean" but "nonetheless equally mean." Co-scribes Anderson ("Rushmore") and Noah Baumbach ("The Squid and the Whale"), who collaborated on "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou," expand Dahl's slight narrative into an exhilarating character study and adventure.

Whimsical details set the tone from the start. A hand displays Dahl's book with its library spine label, making the first subtle pro-reading statement. Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney) has turned from a life of fowl poaching to journalism, where his "Fox About Town" column runs in the Gazette. The newspaperman reads at the dining room table, clipping articles of interest. His son Ash (Jason Schwartzman) buries his nose in superhero White Cape comics and yearns for dad's approval.

The clever and charming Mr. Fox has been tamed somewhat by his wife (Meryl Streep). She knows her husband. Although nattily dressed in a corduroy suit, with two stalks of wheat smartly tucked in his breast pocket, the family man's sartorial style can't disguise his true nature: He's an animal. A vulpes vulpes to be exact.

How can a fox ever be happy without a chicken in his mouth?

Such existential musings make Mr. Fox a fascinating character. And one with dreams of upward mobility. He doesn't want to live in a hole anymore. A tree house provides a room with a view -- of the Boggis-Bunch-Bean estates -- and the corresponding temptation and danger to raid them.

The three nasty villains operate corporate farms and big-box retail establishments. Their capitalist greed supplants the class distinctions in Dahl's book. Size, volume, electrified fences, surveillance devices and heavy machinery define their operations. Their steel-reinforced businesses claw away at the natural landscape, which Anderson colors in flaming hues of autumnal reds, yellows and oranges.

The vibrant color palette and stop-motion animation, in which every facial expression and movement are painstakingly filmed frame by frame, give the film a unique look. In lesser hands, the stop-motion techniques could be stilted and the pacing uneven. But Anderson instills the visuals with cinematic verve. The camera moves as quickly as a fox, sometimes cutting to a close-up of expressive eyes or an extreme long shot of small figures scampering above ground or digging beneath it.

The film has a retro feel but also the freshness that typifies Anderson's best work. When Mr. Fox and his sidekicks Badger (Bill Murray), Kylie the opossum (Wallace Wolodarsky) and Kristofferson (Eric Anderson, the director's brother) follow their wild-thing instincts and decide to poach some poultry from the farmers, the movie catapults into a caper flick. Showdowns with a red-eyed rat (Willem Dafoe) have the markings of a Sergio Leone western. There's the good, the bad and the ugly as the animals must outdig and outfox the formidable Bean (Michael Gambon) and his forces.

Chapter titles flash on the screen, and the comic antics zip by. The toon has a fanciful spirit enhanced by an eclectic soundtrack of songs ranging from "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" to the Beach Boys warbling "I Get Around." Light and uplifting on the surface, the movie has much to say. Insights about relationships, mortality and survival are shaded in a darkness that children won't see.

Most of all, the foxy adventure offers a family pack of fun.

Rated PG for action, smoking and slang humor. 1 hour, 27 minutes.

— Susan Tavernetti

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