The Magnificent Anderson(s)

Shane Murray 29 October 2009

Shane Murray falls head over heels for Wes Anderson’s adaptation of the classic Roald Dahl novel

Fantastic Mr. Fox


Up front, I should admit that I cannot promise that you will find this review in anyway objective or useful. On the other hand, no other review of Fantastic Mr Fox written by a British journalist will be objective either.

Almost everyone read Roald Dahl’s classic tale as a child and, naturally, everyone has their own idea of how it should look. Add to that the fear that any kind of American-made version will automatically amount to a kind of cultural desecration that will ruin not only our childhood memories, but also Britain’s standing in the cultural world, and you have a recipe for knee-jerk reactions against this film.

However, this was not my problem when I came to review the film. I have long since come to terms with the commercial realities that dictate American stars appearing in adaptations of British children’s stories. I have also realised that no film adaptation can ruin my enjoyment of a book.

My problem is that I am an unabashed, slavishly devoted fan of Wes Anderson, the film’s director. Anderson’s frequent forays into a Salinger-esque world of dysfunctional upper-middle class New Yorkers trading ironic quips and neuroses simply rub me up the right way.

Anderson is a real love-him or hate-him auteur. You can find his fussy, intellectual, colour-coded directorial style either intensely charming, or intensely irritating and narrow. That’s why this review can’t be trusted. This is a real “Wes Anderson picture” and therefore I loved it. For exactly the same reasons, you might hate it, so read on at your peril.

Nonetheless, let’s get on to what Anderson does get right. Firstly, although this film has a heavy serving of his style, it wholly captures the anarchic, sly spirit of Dahl’s book. George Clooney is superb choice to voice the cunning, roguish Mr. Fox and, while all of the other (animal) heroes are voiced by Americans, the whole film has an English air of eccentricity and whimsy.

Arguably, this is the best screen adaptation of Fantastic Mr Fox that could have been made, as Anderson has recognised the limits of the book and worked around them. The actual plot of the book is covered in approximately 20 minutes, so Anderson provides a background and extension to the story in order for it to work. In fact, Anderson chooses to take the central strength of the book and stretch that out – its anarchic, anti-establishment spirit. At heart, both the book and film are capers, stories designed to be fun and adventurous above all else.

In that British spirit, Fox strongly resembles an Ealing Comedy, in that it’s not a hugely funny film, preferring to get by with irony and sly wordplay, and instead of a strong, driving plot, it has a collection of entertaining vignettes, connected by the overarching story of Mr. Fox’s battle against the villainous farmers.

This approach allows for the best scenes in the film – a series of heists and confrontations between Mr. Fox, the farmers, and their security detail, featuring, a psychotic rat, a rabid beagle, and Jarvis Cocker. These scenes are filmed excitingly and whimsically, with the soundtrack cleverly switching us between various genres. Clooney is a suave and ingratiating lead, and he is well-matched by Michael Gambon as the obsessive and cruel lead farmer, Bean, and Willem Dafoe’s scenery-chewing, flick-knife wielding rat.

A great deal of the charm of the film, however, has nothing to do with Anderson, the actors, or any Americans. Both the animators and Alexandre Desplat deserve huge amounts of credit for their work. While Anderson has always had a great ear for a soundtrack, Desplat skilfully balances Anderson’s selection of twee American classics with a superb score that cleverly incorporates the children’s chant about the farmers from the book (“Boggis, Bunce and Bean/One fat, one short, one lean…”) into a series of rousing movements.

At the same time, the old-fashioned animation style has a great deal to recommend it, and in particular, lends the film a certain Old World charm. More than anything else though, the animation is beautiful and simple, tailor-made for Anderson’s fussy directorial style, making brilliant use of the superb sets and characters.

The film’s main problem is with some of the extra back story that Anderson provides for his characters. In particular, he has made the animals like his regular (human) characters. For the most part, he gets away with this, keeping these juxtapositions witty, and constantly reminding us that, nonetheless, these are wild animals. At times, however, he pushes his luck, and there are a few too many tacked-on scenes of the characters talking about existentialism. They fit the story relatively well, but are unfortunately quite dull and don’t suit the tone of the film.

Moreover, these scenes, and many of the jokes, are going to fly over the heads of most of the children in audience. It’s not to say that children won’t like the film, but would it have killed Anderson to give them a few belly laughs amidst the irony and whimsical angst?

Which neatly brings me back to my original point: This film has a specific audience who are going to love it. Almost everything in this film tickled me, from Anderson’s own touches to the Dahlian spirit that prevails throughout, but I was pre-disposed to like it, as a huge fan of Anderson and Dahl. I enjoyed it. I can’t promise that you will.

Fantastic Mr Fox is now showing at the Arts Picturehouse

Shane Murray