[This post follows up on an earlier one which you can read here.]
In an earlier post, I quoted from an interview with Tristan Oliver, director of photography and Mark Gustafson, animation director, on Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox. They were bemoaning Anderson’s like of feeling for the medium of stop-motion animation, and the ill-feeling that bubbled under the surface of their back-handed complements was palpable. Quite a few other sites picked up on this as evidence of a “troubled shoot” (see, for instance, here, here and here); doesn’t everyone like to hear tales about a “troubled shoot”? It’s one of those terms that hints at exciting tantrums and passionate disagreements over a project’s creative direction. Either that, or celebrity gossip about a diva refusing to come out of her trailer, a leading man disguising his tranquiliser addiction etc. It’s all part of the lead-up to that moment where you find out whether a film is actually any good or not. It elongates the experience of a film, because you get the chance to think about it and speculate about it even before it’s finished, but backstage gossip is rarely a good indicator of the quality of the finished product.
My original post was not supposed to be a gleeful prediction of Wes Anderson’s exposure as some sort of charlatan (though I would like to see more prominence given to the animators in the film’s promotional material – I couldn’t see Gustafson’s name on the UK poster at all), though I’m aware that some were looking for ammunition against him. There’s no need to take sides, and however it got there, Fantastic Mr Fox turned out to be a delight, the best film Anderson has made since Rushmore. As many reviewers have noticed, it manages to retain many of the director’s trademarks: a retro rock soundtrack, for example, and louche dialogue delivered by a cast of favoured performers. These casual line-readings are a nice contrast to the mannered perkiness that characterises so much voicing of kids’ animation, and make a surprisingly perfect match with the sometimes coarse stop-motion visuals. Anderson’s love of lateral tracking shots and cross-section compositions (remember the set of the ship in The Life Aquatic?) are also present and correct.
The film looks beautiful in its autumnal colours (you can almost smell the scrumpy!), and the roughness of the characters’ movement is not evidence of a sloppy or demoralised labour force, but a natural side-effect of a process that requires fingers and thumbs to tease out expression and nuance from inert models. There are some superb close-ups of the puppets that have been made to respond to the subtleties of the voice cast: Meryl Streep’s Mrs Fox has an aching, wistful yearning for a quiet life with her husband that is being slowly extinguished by his self-absorbed, wayward behaviour; you can hear it in her voice, and see it in “her” eyes”. Jason’s Schwartzman’s surly son Ash, desperate to please his illustrious dad, acts out a series of furious looks in close-up, his body tight with pent-up frustration – these are keenly felt, fierce emotions that are effortlessly conveyed by the delicate work of the animation team, who know when to use big gestures, but are trusted to deliver character information without too much arm-waving.
The comedic high points are those moments where the animals suddenly slip back into their animalistic ways, scarfing down their lovingly-prepared dinner with maximum noise, mess and lust. It’s a nice commentary on the anthropomorphisation of critters for our amusement, a quick reminder that beasts are beastly, even if the ultimate message of the film is that humans are even more so for their ruthless greed, their comparatively joyless need to consume and control their surroundings. Mr Fox is a suave hero figure, good in a fight and deft with words, but like so many Anderson protagonists, he’s prone to self-doubt and bouts of melancholy. I’ll be interested to see how kids respond to this stuff, but I was rather enthralled by it. I should say that the Roald Dahl book was never read to me as a child, so I can’t comment on the adaptation. Maybe in a later post, when I’ve got round to the audio book.