So I did something with Fantastic Mr. Fox that I've never done before in my 12-plus years reviewing movies.
I wasn't concerned that I hadn't read the book before I saw the film. I never am. Movies based on books have to stand on their own. And I certainly don't feel an obligation to read the book first because I don't believe I must be able to compare and contrast.
But then I saw Mr. Fox, and was so astonished by it, and realized that, in this case, I really should have read the book before I could even begin to get my head around this adaptation. I needed to know more about Roald Dahl's book in order to appreciate just how astonishing Wes Anderson's movie is. I wondered if this fantastic flick was a case of Anderson (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums) standing on the shoulders of someone else, in this case the classic children's author Dahl, or had he built up some pretty impressive shoulders of his own?
Did Dahl come up with the basic plot of the film, that Mr. Fox (the voice of George Clooney) is asked by his wife Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) to stop his thieving ways — he is a fox after all, and foxes love to "steal" a farmer's chickens — when she learns she's got a kit in the oven? Did Dahl invent the notion that, years later, Mr. Fox might seek to return to his life of crime, and would do so on the sly so as not to get in trouble at home? Did Dahl give Mr. Fox a lawyer — Mr. Badger (Bill Murray) — and that Mr. Fox needs an attorney to assist him with a real estate venture? Did Dahl create the nerdy but nice Fox child Ash (Jason Schwartzman), who likes to wear a white cape in honor of his favorite comic book super hero, White Cape? Does Dahl's book feature drinking, smoking, and fake swearing among woodland creatures, lots of stuff blowing up, an attempted mass drowning in alcoholic cider, and numerous counts of attempted talking-animal murder? I didn't think so, but I had to check to be sure.
As it turns out, these things are simply not in Dahl's story. (Well, there are numerous counts of attempted talking-animal murder, but that's it.) The British author's work is not a metaphoric tale about marriage and compromise. It is not a story about how all of us are pretty fantastic, given our individual skills and talents, even if not everyone recognizes them at first. It is not a story about how our particularly human hopes and dreams look simultaneously ridiculous and poignant when seen through the perspective of critters not generally known to be concerned about school grades, property values, finding a middle ground between being true to ourselves and attentive to the needs of those we love, and the like.
Dahl's version is a story about a clever fox who steals fowl from human farmers, and the farmers try to stop him using some surprisingly violent means, and that's pretty much it. It is, in fact, plenty charming and plenty whimsical on its own, so much so that it could be hard to imagine how it could get much craftier.
But apparently it wasn't crafty enough for director Anderson and his cowriter Noah Baumbach (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Squid and the Whale). They looked at a sweet-and-sour children's story through a peculiarly skewed eye and said, this can be so much more. And they turned it into something touching, funny, and magically absurd and at the same time pointedly real. They turned it into something genius.
It's in how their Fantastic Mr. Fox is like Ocean's Eleven, if it was made by animators Rankin and Bass (The Hobbit, The Return of the King), or by Nick Park (Wallace and Gromit), whose shrewd and witty stop-motion films are truly suitable for grown-ups and children alike.
From the paintings on the walls to the printed pattern on Ash's little-boy underpants to Mr. Fox's mustard-colored corduroy suit, the accumulation of detail makes it feel utterly authentic, as if this was a real place we were visiting, a place where the people are as weird and as wonderful and as obsessed with living their own lives as, well, we ourselves are.
The lack of fluffy cuteness in Anderson's stop-motion-animated characters makes them characters you can really love — even when they're frustratingly complicated and contradictory and just confidently themselves — instead of something to awe over. It makes it easy to share their exuberance and their dissatisfaction and their disasters and their triumphs.
Fantastic Mr. Fox is deliciously odd and just plain fantastic.