Calling Fantastic Mr. Fox Wes Anderson’s best movie since The Royal Tenenbaums sounds almost like a backhanded compliment. In the very least, it’s pretty faint praise, the type of vaguely polite remark you might fall back on when faced with, say, a friend’s awful bar band. (“Yeah man, your instruments were totally in tune.”) Admittedly, the one-two punch of Rushmore and Tenenbaums — for better or for worse, two of the most influential American films of the last two decades — is a hard act to follow. That still doesn’t excuse the lazy, damn near self-parodic backsliding of Anderson’s fourth and fifth features, 2004’s The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou and 2007’s The Darjeeling Limited. Like one of the Tenenbaum kids, Wes conquered the world early, then fell back to earth hard. The pressure of high expectations weighing on his every move, he deluded his own formula for success, offering a kind of Designer Imposter variation on it: diminishing returns squeezed into symmetrical compositions, predictably set to jangly classic rock tunes, and dutifully acted out by a cadre of familiar faces. It’s been an uneven decade for this American Eccentric.
So let’s not mince words here: Fantastic Mr. Fox is Anderson’s best movie since Tenenbaums, and not just by default. It’s the first of his post-millennial efforts (excepting, perhaps, that marvelous American Express commercial) to get within a stone’s throw of his masterpiece, to approximate that same winning blend of droll wit and manic visual invention. An animated adaptation of a beloved book — that’s two firsts for Wes — Mr. Fox unfolds in colorful, herky-jerky stop-motion, more Wallace and Gromit stilted than Henry Selick sinuous. It takes a hot minute, in this age of Pixar fluidity, to acclimate your eye to such a twitchily unnatural aesthetic. Once you have, though, the full breadth of immaculate, carefully crafted detail comes into focus. Anderson’s animal kingdom, all cluttered domestic spaces in a grassy woodland oasis, is as fully, lovingly realized as the Tenenbaums’ Glass-Family-by-way-of-Edward-Gorey NYC facsimile. I still say Gorey’s a better fit for the filmmaker than Roald Dahl — imagine the meticulously macabre fantasia Wes could weave out of The Gashlycrumb Tinies. Still, what Anderson finds in Dahl’s slim text, about a family of foxes at war with three greedy farmers, is the freedom to let his hair down. He’s got some game playmates, too. George Clooney, doing more with his smooth pipes here than he did with the whole package in The Men Who Stare At Goats, is the titular, tie-wearing canine. Meryl Streep voices his exasperated wife and Jason Schwartzman their brooding brood, while a merry band of recognizable background players adopt their own critter cadences.
Really, this is a furry gloss on the usual Anderson ensemble, his rouge’s gallery of neurotic, self-conscious urbanites. The token Wes signifiers naturally factor in, too — you don’t have to listen too hard to catch the Rolling Stones or Owen Wilson’s nasally drawl on the busy soundtrack. Yet Anderson seems downright liberated by a change of scenery — as is often the case with artists who peak young, he finds freedom outside the narrow confines of his stagnating signatures. By virtue of overlapping hipster pedigrees, superficial comparisons have been drawn between this rather joyful lark and the pointedly joyless Where the Wild Things Are. Neither film is for children, exactly, but Anderson, unlike Spike Jonze, doesn’t mine his kiddie-lit classic for achingly personal self-reflection. He’s in it for the laughs, and Mr. Fox has more of those (verbal, visual and otherwise) than just about any comedy this year. There are reoccurring sight gags, like the way the possum’s eyes go swirly every time he kind of nods off, or the way Schwartzman’s ill tempered junior fox twitches his ear and spits when perturbed. There are deliriously funny, one-note supporting characters, like Willem Dafoe’s villainous rodent henchman. (The movie could have used more of his cockney jazz routine.) And there’s the simple way that Anderson subs “cuss” in for assorted dirty words, a silly running joke that somehow manages to kill every single time. But if there’s a definitive source of humor here, it’s Mr. Fox’s heartfelt soliloquy (spoken before frantically devouring his breakfast), which explains that beasts behave like people… then immediately behave like beasts again.
That’s a thematic concern, too. Cooped up by his domestic lifestyle, Mr. Fox longs to poach chickens again like he did in his stag days — “I’m a wild animal,” he rationalizes, before going after the prize produce of Boggis, Bunce and Bean, “three of the meanest, nastiest, ugliest farmers in the valley.” They naturally retaliate, blowing up Fox’s new upscale family home, and sending all the local wildlife underground. When Mr. Fox rallies the troops, recognizing each of their beastly skills in an Ocean’s 11-style role call, the movie briefly flirts with becoming a madcap heist picture. Alas, that never quite materializes, probably because Anderson doesn’t really do fiendishly complicated capers. (His feature debut, Bottle Rocket, hilariously confounded those exact expectations.) One can’t help but wish that Fantastic Mr. Fox had a little more emotional resonance to it. Though Anderson introduces a few dramatic concerns — chief among them, how a mid-life crisis can violently disrupt a family — none of them feel particularly pressing. These stop-motion creatures, with their bristling fur and disembodied voices, never blossom into fully three-dimensional characters. (Pixar, this just ain’t.) Wes’s best work remains those efforts that delicately balance pathos and belly laughs. But Mr. Fox at least nails half that equation — if not quite Royal, it’s certainly a step toward fantastic.