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"FANTASTIC MR. FOX"
(2009) (voices of George Clooney, Meryl Streep) (PG)

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QUICK TAKE:
Animated Comedy: An anthropomorphized fox can't help but resort to his old, fowl-stealing ways, thus putting him at odds with his family as well as the human farmers from whom he steals.
PLOT:
Two years after giving up their fowl-stealing ways, Mr. Fox (voice of GEORGE CLOONEY) and Mrs. Fox (voice of MERYL STREEP) are proud vulpine parents to Ash (voice of JASON SCHWARTZMAN) a brooding adolescent. Mr. Fox works as a columnist for the local paper and, ignoring the advice of his attorney, Badger (voice of BILL MURRAY), moves his family out of their standard hole in the ground and into the base of a large tree that comes along with its own superintendent, Kylie (voice of WALLY WOLODARSKY) the possum.

They're soon joined by Ash's cousin, Kristofferson (voice of ERICE ANDERSON), whose father is in the hospital, and Ash isn't happy about his own unfavorable comparisons to his relative. But there are bigger fish to fry in that Mr. Fox simply can't shake his animal instincts and the absolute joy he gets out of hunting fowl. Accordingly, he convinces Kylie and Kristofferson -- rather than Ash -- to join him in raiding the farms of three local human farmers, Walter Boggis (voice of ROBIN HURLSTONE), Nathan Bunce (voice of HUGO GUINNESS) and Franklin Bean (voice of MICHAEL GAMBON).

The latter produces strong alcoholic cider, employs Rat (voice of WILLEM DAFOE) to protect his goods, and is decidedly less than pleased that Mr. Fox and his companions have raided his stash, a feeling shared by Mrs. Fox who isn't happy that her husband has returned to his old ways. While that creates strife between the couple, they, those in their home, Badger and other local animals must contend with Bean convincing his fellow farmers to stop at nothing to find and kill the animals who've wronged them.

OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
Ask most any parent, coach or teacher and they'll tell you that one of the things they hate most is watching their kid, player and/or student throw away some innate gift they possess and thus squander their potential. In some ways, it's worse than someone not having any of that to begin with, but it isn't always limited to just kids. It can and often does happen to adults, be they politicians, sports figures or those in the entertainment industry.

The latter are usually those in front of the microphone or camera, but those behind the scenes sometimes suffer from the same. Case in point, at least for yours truly, has been Wes Anderson. After making a big splash (at least among critics and art house aficionados) with the likes of the quirky and entertaining "Bottle Rocket" and "Rushmore," the filmmaker set his sights higher with "The Royal Tenenbaums."

Yet, like many an entertainer before him, he then seemed to have become caught up in his own world where said quirkiness and such started to exist simply for the sake of being just that. Subsequent efforts such as "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" and "The Darjeeling Limited" felt forced and came off as self-indulgent follies that had many a reviewer and film fan worry that the writer/director had lost his way.

Thus, when I heard he (along with Noah Baumbach) was adapting the children's story "Fantastic Mr. Fox" by beloved author Roald Dahl ("Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," "James and the Giant Peach," etc.) and was doing so as a stop-motion animated picture, I didn't exactly have high or even medium expectations. After all, it looked like another bit of self-aggrandizement, even more forced eccentricity, and yet another quirky tale of majorly screwed-up families.

Although those strained family dynamics are certainly on display -- as they are in most of Anderson's flicks -- I'm happy to report that this offering is a delight from start to finish, and will entertain adults as much as the kids, albeit on different levels of understanding.

For the youngsters, it's a wild romp reminiscent in some ways of the fabulous Looney Tunes cartoons of old. It's colorful, filled with lots of action and, of course, features talking animals as the good guys and humans as the bad ones (much like the aforementioned Bugs Bunny shorts).

The adults will enjoy all of the above, but also the plentiful wit and sarcasm (most notably about the nature and perception of cussing -- more on that in a moment), the thematic elements about mankind's animalistic nature that can't be escaped, and the painstaking process that obviously went into animating the pic (where each character, etc. is moved a fraction of an inch, filmed, moved a bit, filmed some more, etc.).

The latter goes back to the days of Willis O'Brien making the original "King Kong" (and "The Lost World" before that) up through the work of Ray Harryhausen, the various Rankin/Bass TV holiday shorts (such as "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer") and, more recently, the offerings from Henry Selick such as "The Nightmare Before Christmas," "James and the Giant Peach," and "Coraline." There's something charming and engaging about the visual results (such as the oddly rippling fur on the title character), even if the animation isn't as polished as the Pixar films and some of my admiration could be tied to a great deal of nostalgia for a mostly bygone era.

What makes the film so entertaining and enjoyable, however, are the various characters (and terrific vocal work that wonderfully supplements the animators' efforts in creating credible emotional expressions, etc.) and their interaction with one another, as well as the overall story. The latter is actually quite simple in construction as the title character (voiced by George Clooney somewhat channeling a little Danny Ocean) can't help but revert to his old ways of stealing chickens and other fowl.

In doing so, he breaks his promise to his more civilized wife (Meryl Streep), further estranges his son (Jason Schwartzman) and gets himself in a heap of trouble, not only with three human farmers (Michael Gambon, Robin Hurlstone and Hugo Guinness), but also other animals (including a badger lawyer voiced by Bill Murray) who end up affected by his actions.

And that results in a lot of cussing from the various characters, but yes, there's even charm to that. For you see, the old standby profanities and their related common phrases have been replaced with variations of the word "cuss." Not only does that allow the film to keep its PG rating while still be somewhat naughty, but it also shows the folly of profanity in general as well as the power that's given to certain words when others can be used in their place and still get the "point" across without being considered as profane. It's a brilliant, added touch, and perhaps one that viewers will adopt and thus use should they engage in such colorful language.

Throw in a number of other fun and/or funny characters, various bits of action, deadpan reactions, humorous family give and take, and a decidedly eclectic soundtrack, and the result is quite simply one of the more enjoyable animated films of the year, and one that works on multiple levels.

Not being intimately familiar with Dahl's original work, I can't attest to how faithful (or not) this might be to the source material. As a standalone offering, however, it's quite an entertaining offering and one that might just play as well -- or even better -- to adults as it does kids. "Fantastic Mr. Fox" rates as a 7.5 out of 10.




Reviewed November 5, 2009 / Posted November 25, 2009


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