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Minor Tinkering

Minor Tinkering (photo)

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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.

11112009_FantasticMrFox2.jpgWhich 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.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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