The Fantastic Mr. Fox
Directed by Wes Anderson
Starring: George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray,
Owen Wilson
Rated PG for action, smoking
and slang humor
1 hr. 28 min.

Forget, for a second,  New Moon and The Blind Side — Wes Anderson has, inexplicably, just made a stop-motion masterpiece.

Fantastic Mr. Fox is everything that Anderson fans hoped it would be and more: it’s a perfect vehicle to reintroduce his brand of wry, (mostly) high-brow humor, constant attention to detail and, of course, family drama made effortlessly cool.

More important, the film’s sharp-witted dialogue, evocative crude animation (think Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Christmas special) and tightly scripted plot are the ideal holiday theater-going experience. It’s the rare gem buried underneath the Old Dogs, Ninja Assassin’s and Squeakquels (Alvin and the Chipmunks) that currently litter 10-screen cinemas.

Beginning with a hand holding an aged hardcover edition of Roald Dahl’s children’s story of the same title, Fantastic Mr. Fox launches into a frenetically paced narrative that moves through titled chapters and plot points without ever becoming laborious or being set adrift in unnecessary chase sequences commonly found in animated fare.

Similar to Where the Wild Things Are (the recent, and almost instantly forgotten, triumph from director Spike Jonze), Fox isn’t just a kids’ movie that winks and nods to its adult audience, it’s a fully formed adult film that takes obvious and hilarious pains to be accessible to a much younger audience — even down to the humorous attempts at self-censoring curse words in the movie. (A furry character grumbles, “the mother-cussers.”)

The plot begins, and revolves entirely around, Mr. Fox (George Clooney), a scruffy scoundrel, charismatic patriarch, and over-the-hill newspaper columnist. It’s been 12 years since his last heist, but he’s still itching to pull one last job before permanently slipping away into suburban coma in his middle-class hovel. Armed with only a bandit hat, his deft athletic instincts and an unassuming possum for a sidekick, Mr. Fox will attempt to ransack all the poultry and alcoholic cider he can from the meticulously animated Boggis, Bunce and Bean farms.

Fox can’t explain this urge really, only chalking it up to the fact that he can’t forever bundle up his “wild animal” instincts — its an existential thing, he explains. Sure.

No actor can pull off Fox’s smarmy but somehow endearing persona as George Clooney can, even if — like the man himself — his character is often cocksure, and endlessly arrogant. But, in much the same way that Alec Baldwin retooled his perceived bull-headed chauvinism for laughs in 30 Rock, Clooney gives several inspired toasts to his animal friends that seemingly poke fun at his annual glib self-importance at the Oscars. It’s a more than refreshing, and endlessly entertaining sight.

Unfortunately, Fox’s misguided robin hooding puts not only his wife (Meryl Streep) and awkward son (Jason Schwartzman) repeatedly in danger, but imperils the entire animal community as the bumbling and irate farmers mobilize to rid themselves of the “miserable” Fox. They try everything, even shooting off Fox’s tail, before eventually forcing all the animals underground, where they do what they do best: dig.

And it’s not until all the characters are underground that the movie truly comes alive. Bit characters like Bill Murray’s Beaver, a staunchly conservative lawyer, and Schwartzman’s misunderstood Ash (frustrated by the community’s attempts at labeling him “different”) find their footing, flesh out the entire tale and, with a little help from the rest of the animals, stir up a little anarchy in the human town of Bunce, Boggis and Bean.

Oddly enough, the whole enterprise works. Without having seen the film, it’s probably hard to imagine that there are more than a few brilliantly rendered sequences, quotes and, yes, even poignant, intimate moments. It might even challenge Up for best animated movie of the year.

Pretty impressive for a film populated with something akin to a few poorly constructed furry dolls.   

erik@vcreporter.com