First published by EyeforFilm
If good adaptation involves a conversation between artists that respects both the similarities and the differences between them, then Fantastic Mr. Fox is one of the finest. It has been drawn from one of the slimmer children’s stories by Roald Dahl, but at the same time it is unmistakably a movie by Wes Anderson, whose rather idiosyncratic brand of creativity merges with Dahl’s in a way that brings out the best from both of them.
A family of beleaguered foxes must pit its wits against a nasty trio of local farmers and dig its way to food and freedom. This is the bare-bones plot of Dahl’s 1970 novella and it remains, in essence, the bedrock upon which Anderson and his regular writing partner Noah Baumbach have built a typically quirky confection of chirpy dysfunction, Oedipal angst, waggish nostalgia and slacker neurosis.
Dahl may have died in 1990, but his spirit haunts this film. The tree into which Mr Fox (voiced by George Clooney), Mrs Fox (Meryl Streep) and their son Ash (Jason Schwartzman) move is modelled on a prominent beech tree on Dahl’s property in Great Missenden, while Mr Fox’s study recreates in minute detail the interior of the famous garden hut in which Dahl did most of his writing – while mean farmer Bean (Michael Gambon) bears more than a passing likeness to Dahl himself.
Perhaps, though, there all resemblance ends. For just as Mr Fox’s elegant wardrobe has been based on Anderson’s own corduroy and tweed suits, this is a film that assiduously follows its director’s peculiar fashions. First there is the decision to animate using oldschool stop-motion, a form with which Anderson has already flirted in his The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004) – and here it ensures that the film brims with the sort of charm that only such wilful outmodedness can deliver.
Then there is the vivid colour scheme which, thanks to Anderson’s total veto on the colour green, fills the screen with autumnal browns, oranges, reds and yellows. It looks stunning, but it is also no less recognisable a signature style than Mr Fox’s ‘trademark’ clicks and whistles. Which brings us to the animal characters, many of whom are new, and all of whom offer that special blend of the mundane and the unique that Anderson has so perfectly honed over the years. As in almost every Anderson film, there is an extended, chaotic family whose patriarch both bonds and divides everyone around him – and there is a son who struggles out of his father’s shadow.
Many of these elements interact with the source material in interesting ways. In the context of Dahl’s bestial fable, Anderson’s usual cast of arrested-development adults is naturally converted into an ensemble of anthropomorphised woodland creatures (in natty knitwear!) who cannot help occasionally reverting to their more bestial inclinations. Mr Fox sits down to a genteel breakfast of stacked pancakes, only to gobble the lot down in an instant. A petty argument with his lawyer (Bill Murray’s Badger) rapidly descends into snarls and bared claws. He may have given up his career as a bird thief when his wife fell pregnant and instead become a house-broken newspaper columnist, but Mr Fox cannot resist deciding “to secretly do one last big job on the sly”, ascribing such recidivism to his being “a wild animal”. And so he is – although when he attempts, near the film’s end, to communicate (in French) with an untamed, unclothed and unspeaking wolf, we realise there are limits to Mr Fox’s wildness.
Tellingly, the other thing, apart from sheer animal instinct, that drives Mr Fox to rash action is his anxiety about living up to the moniker ‘Fantastic Fox’ – much as Ash is anxious about ever living up to his father’s heroic status. This no doubt mirrors Anderson’s own concern about rising to the standards of a book that he claims was the first he ever owned as a child.
Yet Mr Fox, Ash and the filmmaker all triumph together, weaving from their brilliant parodies of gangster flicks, heist movies, kung fu pictures and westerns, from their wonderfully witty lines, from their sharp moves and wrong-footing caprices, a fantastic adaptation that manages to surpass its source material while staying entirely true to its spirit.