Fantastic Mr. Fox
It's hard to begin a review of a Wes Anderson film without using the word "auteur." From his debut film Bottle Rocket (1996) onward, Anderson has established a style that is clearly his own: tracking and slow-motion shots, montages, classic rock songs (often played over the montages or slow-motion shots), wry humor, immaculate production design, the Futura Bold font—and so on. He also returns to many of the same themes, like family dysfunction and identity crises. If an auteur is defined as a director "whose complete control over all aspects of a production gives the end result a recognizable feel," Anderson fits the label as well as anyone.
Anderson's newest film, Fantastic Mr. Fox, is an adaptation of a children's book by the oft-adapted Roald Dahl (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, Matilda). Fantastic Mr. Fox represents Anderson's first attempt at an animated film—more specifically, stop-action animation, with real-life models painstakingly photographed one frame at a time. My biggest question going into this film was how Anderson's distinctive style would translate from live action to this new medium.
When asked by the Chicago Sun-Times about using stop-motion, Anderson said, "With stop-motion over other forms of animation, I think you can sense that somebody's moving these physical objects and making them seem alive. You can somehow sense the hands being put on these things, and there's a charm to that, I think." This awareness of "the hands" is especially true in Fantastic Mr. Fox, because the character models wear real fur. As the animators re-position the models between frames, the bristles in the models' fur get pushed around, creating in the final product an effect known as "invisible wind."
If, then, you think about stop-motion as a form that calls attention to itself and the creators behind it, then it seems a perfect fit for a director whose films do the same. And it is. Anderson's eye for detail lends charm and life to the miniature sets of tree houses and farms, and his trademark camera pans let us feast on every hand-crafted morsel. Similarly, the geometric precision he is known for in his set design and camera angles gives Fantastic Mr. Fox an appropriate storybook feel. Notably missing, though, are Anderson's slow-motion shots; one can imagine some frenzied animator begging Anderson not to spend three months of production time on a painstaking ten seconds of slow motion.
The story of Fantastic Mr. Fox uses Roald Dahl's original barebones plot for the core action and elaborates on it. Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney) is a fox, of course, and a one-time farm thief who, for the sake of his family, has settled down to the less dangerous—but also less thrilling and less lucrative—job of a newspaper columnist. Eventually, though, the old itch to steal drives him to the farms of Boggis, Bunce, and Bean, three very mean men. Mr. Fox's relapse ignites a war that places not only his family but also his whole community in jeopardy.