Film review: Fantastic Mr Fox

Wes Anderson's first animation transposes the children's classic into its own weird world, writes Peter Bradshaw

David Cameron’s Conservatives reckon on a prompt and triumphant restoration of England’s traditional fox-hunt when they get back in next year. I wonder. Maybe this eccentric, whip-smart and very funny new animation will help to make that legislation less appealing than they think.

It is Wes Anderson’s semi-Americanised version of Roald Dahl’s foxy tale for children from 1970, a book that very much sides with the uneatable against the unspeakable. Anderson uses the old-fashioned stop-motion technique, featuring models whose fur continually stirs and bristles in being repositioned for each frame, as if they are standing in front of the world’s weakest wind tunnel or a draughty English window. It’s like something by Oliver Postgate or Jan Švankmajer, and some might detect a trace of affectation in this olde-worlde effect, but I found it utterly beguiling and entirely consistent with Anderson’s quirky homespun aesthetic, his snappily offbeat dialogue and distinctive proscenium-style framing. In its cheerful anarchy and brutality it’s very Dahlian – in spirit, anyway.

Anderson’s movie takes the original story in wacky new directions; it sketches in an elaborate backstory for Mr and Mrs Fox, warmly and wittily voiced by George Clooney and Meryl Streep. Mr Fox has theoretically renounced his chicken-thieving ways on becoming a father – his boy is now a moody teen, Ash, voiced by Jason Schwartzman – and he has become a mild-mannered local newspaper columnist. But on moving into a new area, incidentally against the advice of his badger lawyer, voiced by Bill Murray, Mr Fox is piqued by three local farmers, agribusiness boors called Boggis, Bunce and Bean. He’s tempted into one last job against each of their smug citadels. This confrontation leads to the Freudian nightmare of Mr Fox getting his tail shot off.

In the traditional Hollywood manner, I’m afraid, the good guys are Americans, but the bad guys, the farmers, are Brits: led by hollow-faced meanie Bean, voiced by Michael Gambon. He totes a German Luger and bizarrely employs a kind of house musician, Petey, played by Jarvis Cocker, whose improvised ballad on the anti-fox offensive infuriates Bean: “That’s just bad songwriting, Petey!”

Granted, Anderson’s mannerisms have been irritating in the past, but pitching a film at children has restored his sweet-natured charm. This is hip – but with heart. Anderson and his co-writer, Noah Baumbach, together dream up a home-made simulacrum of the universe, in which lives a slightly reclusive and dysfunctional family group, like those in Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou or in Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale. Those were families who nursed their singularities and shared weirdnesses as a defence against the world. In Fantastic Mr Fox, the world itself seems just a little bit weird, but gloriously so. Ash’s bedroom has a tremendous toy train, which looks for all intents and purposes precisely like the real train we see periodically beetling across the landscape. This is a cosmos crying out to be played with and enjoyed. PB


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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