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Fantastic Mr. Fox

There is so much of the child in Wes Anderson that it was inevitable that he would eventually make, if not a movie for children, then one that co-opts that genre traditionally reserved for children, the animated film. And hence Fantastic Mr. Fox, by far the most delightful film of the holiday season, so far and above such curdled product as Planet 51 or A Christmas Carol as to require a different scale entirely.

Nor is it quite like any other stop-motion film of recent years, a genre that refuses to die. Hugely labor intensive, it requires the creation of miniature sets and dolls or puppets to inhabit them. The figures are posed, and a frame of film is photographed. The figures are moved a millimeter, for another frame, eventually achieving what looks like motion when projected at 32 frames a second.

The recent Coraline (by Henry Selick, who has worked with Anderson in the past and was attached to this film until its schedule dragged on too long) was made this way; so were the Wallace and Gromit movies, unless you want to split hairs about clay animation being different.

Purist that he is, Anderson goes them one better by using no CGI effects to augment his film. Even puffs of smoke and splashes of water are produced by stop-motion. That they can’t be done very effectively in this manner is part of the movie’s charm. We’re reminded of the artifice and of watching old films made in this manner when we were children unspoiled by the sterile perfection of digital effects. (If I’m not mistaken, there are a few shout-outs to Art Clokey’s Gumby cartoons here.)

Based on a Roald Dahl story (Anderson says it’s the first book he can remember owning) about a fox outwitting a trio of brutal farmers who are trying to exterminate him, Fantastic Mr. Fox expands the characters in ways that may not please Dahl enthusiasts. Voiced by George Clooney (who, like the other people in the voice cast, makes no attempt to sound like some conception of a speaking animal), Fox is first seen sharing one of his favorite pastimes with his wife (Meryl Streep), a nighttime raid on a henhouse. Narrowly escaping with their lives, he promises her to retire to a less stressful way of making a living.

But 12 “fox years” later, now a newspaper columnist bored with his routine and unable to communicate with his oddball son Ash (Jason Schwartzman), Fox decides to revisit that old sense of danger by staging one more raid—actually a trilogy of raids, one on each of the three meanest local farmers. He succeeds, but so enrages the farmers that they vow to stop at nothing to kill him, even if they have to destroy most of the local woods to do so.

If it seems like I’ve revealed a lot of the plot, it’s no more than Anderson expects most of his viewers will already be familiar with. He and co-scripter Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale) add a range of familiar preoccupations to the story, particularly in the disconnect between adventurous father and dreamer son on the one hand and domestic wife on the other.

Famed for bring whimsy to reality, Anderson here reverses the equation by bringing reality to a format known for whimsicality. (The production of the movie was marked by similar reversals: Rather than recording his actors in a sound studio, Anderson took them on locations that mirrored the scenes of the film; and he oversaw the actual filming, on stages in rural England, remotely from his apartment in Paris.) They may be wearing clothes, walking upright, and talking, but these animals are always animals, a fact of which we are amusingly reminded when they eat or argue.

The puppet characters are intricately designed and perfectly imperfect, which must have been hard on the continuity people. Anderson often commits what would be a cardinal sin to most animators, having moments of stillness in which we can admire these creations. And who could blame him? There isn’t a single frame in this film that isn’t a complete delight to look at.

Watch the trailer for Fantastic Mr. Fox

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