You’ve heard it already, how Wes Anderson’s model railroad-making and Tinker Toy-like narrative constructions, emotionally unmediated characters, pleasure with antiqued surfaces and visual tableaux-love would’ve led him eventually to making an animated film, more probably a stop motion animation, and thus we have “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” a frame-by-frame expression of the single man’s passion for particular detail that’s no less obsessive than your average Jan Švankmajer. So, Andersonites will kvell, and those on whom the filmmaker’s whimsical vision has been lost or squandered will wonder what in hell their children are supposed to make of the thing.
I belong to a third borderland camp, never convinced that Anderson’s bric-a-brac notionalism has yet produced a masterpiece, but nevertheless thankful for the presence of his personality in my head, seething with the joy to be had in hyper-devising human terrariums that reek faintly of yesteryear and pulse with gentle irony. I’m also not worried for my children, who know irony and obsession and vice, all Anderson axioms, like a dog knows fleas, thanks not so much to me, but to SpongeBob SquarePants.
“Fox” is of course a terrarium — a Roald Dahl-derived moon-landing recon of the formidable land known as childhood, and because it is buoyant and life-force-loving and fierce, like a healthy child, it is twice the film of “Where the Wild Things Are,” which mistook the mopiness of personal nostalgia for the affection and brio of nostalgia rooted in our shared history. Anderson makes no such mistake — his film is a fast-talking, zesty riot, in which the George Clooney-voiced egomaniac hero jeopardizes his tabletop country’s animal denizens by stepping outside of his tamed middle-class life and succumbing to his essential fox-ness, looting the local corporate farmers’ hen houses and cider bins for sheer fun and thereby inviting the full wrath of angry human profit-privilege to lay siege.
Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach have, of course, added in Fox’s inner conflict (Dahl’s book was simply about stealing food to survive), and though the character arc is pleasantly dark for an animated film, it’s also rather routine and eventually, predictably, consumes the movie’s latter section with rescue-plot contrivance (and action-movie farce).
Pills mixed into the porridge are standard, but the rest of Anderson’s concoction is not, and as long as it’s inventing furry character tics or roving-shot mini-panoramas or droll animal conversations or meta-cricket sports rules or Rube Goldberg story cascades, we’re comfortably in the realm of the inspired. That’s one thing that’s easy to overlook about “Fox,” particularly for those that have seen most or all of the recent digital kid features — it’s a film that remembers and does not mourn childhood, in all of its cobbled-together, dirt-digging, plan-hatching dizziness. The supply of high spirits, in the characters’ miniature world and in Anderson’s creative play, cannot be corked, and with its rambunctious mix of Brit and American modes and its deliberately unpolished animation, it evokes the actual afternoon daydream of an old-school third-grader far more distinctly than any American film in recent memory.
Which is to say, if movies are only experiences for you, and not objects, and if the antiquarian buzz to be had from attic rummagings like Anderson’s don’t ring your bell (a quiz: was “Sky Captain” a bookplate swoon for you or a strange old-hat snooze?), then “Fox” might seem to be merely a self-conscious exercise masquerading as a kids’ film. With choppy animation, yet. We will leave such impatient and forgetful perspectives with their petulant owners, and note that movies themselves are, at their moviest, cubes of frozen time, elegies for what is taken away from us, every day, as the sub-seconds tick by. Nostalgia is a dirty word these days, but human culture has no now, only a departed then — and cinema is that passage’s most vivid capture system. “Fox” straddles the divide, implicitly engaging in both the everlasting present of children, and the respect for vintage children’s culture like Dahl’s and the very different (and more interesting) world in which it once thrived.
Painted the colors of leaves you notice only if you’re close to the October ground, “Fox” is, for all that, something of a trifle, a candy corn and not a Marathon bar, because ambition and scope wouldn’t make sense in this universe. It harbors statements about human greed, family life, domestication (of men, not just animals), parenthood and heroism, but they’re never serious matters, at least compared to the dry yocks to be had from a possum’s petrified stare of incomprehension.
The actors, from Clooney to badger Bill Murray and petulant teen fox Jason Schwartzman, are all jacked into Anderson’s trademarked deadpan delivery style, but perhaps they didn’t even need to be, given the beguiling physicality of the film — it’s made of toys more convincing than those of the sheeny “Toy Story” films, and evokes most of all the landscape of the old Lutheran TV show “Davey and Goliath,” watched by my generation for its Lilliputian topography and not its message, on very early Saturday mornings before the grown-ups woke up. Again, there’s that “old” thing. “Fox” may escape the attention span of a consumer population acclimated from infancy to plasma TV, Xbox and “Idol” nowness, but it made me want to build a treehouse.