Who would have thought that it would be Wes Anderson offering up Pixar's main competition for the 2010 Oscar Award for Best Animated Feature?
While Pixar's "Up" may arguably be the stronger of the two films, Anderson's animated debut is a wondrously awesome and original visual feast featuring the year's best animated vocal work by none other than the likes of George Clooney, Meryl Streep,Jason Schwartzman and a host of others.
Based upon a book by Roald Dahl, with definite creative license taken, "Fantastic Mr. Fox" is the story of Mr. Fox (George Clooney), an upright walking fox who gives up his inherent wildness as an expert chicken thief to settle down with Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) and raise his son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman) in the relatively monotonous profession of newspaper columnist. It's not long, however, before Mr. Fox is waxing eloquent about what it truly means to be a fox and, unbeknownst to his family, he ropes best friend Kylie (Wally Wolodarsky) into one more magnificent, three-part raid on the farms of Boggis, Bunce and Bean, three of the most successful and meanest farmers you've likely ever seen.
The farmers catch on to the actions of Mr. Fox and Kylie, and much of "Fantastic Mr. Fox" becomes a sort of game of cat-and-mouse, if you will, between Mr. Fox, his family, the wildlife community that is suddenly thrown into disarray due to Mr. Fox's risk-taking and, of course, the three farmer's who refuse to be outsmarted by a fox.
While Pixar's "Up" has as its main selling points the pristine clarity of its animation and the studio's innate ability to blend intelligent storylines into films that appeal to adults and children, Wes Anderson's "Fantastic Mr. Fox" takes a decidedly more psychedic, quirky approach to the animation that is so faithful to a Wes Anderson world, especially his last collaboration with co-writer Baumbach "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou," that it's easy at times to forget that one is watching an animated film despite the presence of talking foxes, a smarmy rat, a goofy oppossum and so much more. In fact, this world is so thoroughly a Wes Anderson world that the only question becomes why it took so long for Anderson to create such a film.
It's not the clarity of the animation in "Fantastic Mr. Fox" that is so impressive, but how magnificently Anderson creates memorable imagery full of life, personality, humor and heart. Whereas a filmmaker such as Robert Zemeckis continues to flirt with stop-motion capture that is more unnerving than evocative, Anderson's "Fantastic Mr. Fox" is a multi-layered animation stunner with characters who look and act with such purity of heart and intellect that one wants to revisit them long after the closing credits have rolled.
True to his usual style of filmmaking and storytelling and, perhaps to the dismay of Dahl purists, Anderson adds a bit of an existential twist onto the story and, as well, brings vividly to life the story of the rather dysfunctional fox family, especially Mr. Fox's inability to connect with his son, especially when Ash's cousin, Kristofferson (Eric Anderson), arrives on the scene in all his athletic splendor.
Where Pixar may have the upper hand in terms of animation technique, this 20th Century Fox release may very well transcend "Up" with Anderson's ability to intertwine visionary technique with memorable vocal performances that far exceed those presence in the Pixar release. Seldom in animated features do you leave the theatre going "Wow, what performances," but such is true in "Fantastic Mr. Fox." George Clooney, perhaps creating an animated version of Danny Ocean, is marvelously sly and sincere, layered and sympathetic. Likewise, in a year in which an Oscar nomination is assured for Streep with her "Julie & Julia" performance, the greatest living actress far outperforms with her mere vocals what most actresses can achieve with the full range of live-action performing. Strong vocal work, as well, is offered by the rest of the ensemble with special notice going to Wally Wolodarsky's Kylie, Eric Anderson's Kristofferson, Jason Schwartzman's Ash and Jarvis Cocker's strangely delightful Petey.
Absurd and awesome, wonderfully visionary and uniquely felt, "Fantastic Mr. Fox" is easily one of 2009's best animated feature films and, if justice is served, a likely nominee throughout awards season. Twisted reality and animated fantasy blended to near perfection, "Fantastic Mr. Fox" is, indeed, fantastic.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic