During the production of Wes Anderson’s stop-motion animated film Fantastic Mr. Fox, there was a small controversy over the enigmatic director’s involvement in the project. Not wanting to stay at Three Mills Studio in London, Anderson holed up at his flat in Paris and communicated with his crew mostly through e-mail. According to the L.A. Times, this hands-off approach made the creative team “miserable” and even lead director of photography Tristan Oliver to accuse Anderson of minimal directorial involvement.
Given these complaints and the fact that the stop-motion animation of Fantastic Mr. Fox is a medium that Anderson has never ventured into before, it would seem like the movie might not fit into the rest of his oeuvre. However, within the first five minutes of the film the tone and visual style of Fantastic Mr. Fox is strikingly similar to his live-action work. Anderson sets up a horizontal tracking shot that depicts the titular Mr. Fox and his wife hunting a chicken through a farm with a plucky banjo melody providing accompaniment. It’s a moment that mirrors opening scenes from The Life Aquatic, The Darjeeling Limited, and Moonrise Kingdom and has become quintessentially Anderson-esque. It deliberately calls attention to the filmmaking with the enthusiastic glee of a director excited about the possibilities of a new medium.
Based on the beloved children’s book by Roald Dahl, Fantastic Mr. Fox is about an ambitious Fox’s confrontation with three cruel farmers, Boggis, Bunce, and Bean. Anderson and his co-writer Noah Baumbach add to the plot significantly to strengthen the family dynamic. Fox (George Clooney) and his wife (Meryl Streep) find out they are pregnant, inspiring the patriarch to abandon his career as a chicken thief in favor of a quieter, safer life. When their son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman), is facing his awkward teen years, Mr. Fox simultaneously is no longer able to suppress his animal instincts and finds himself on the hunt once again.
After several successful heists, Fox’s confidence is dangerously inflated and the tempers of Boggis (Robin Hurlston), Bunce (Hugo Guinness), and Bean (Michael Gambon) are severely flared. The farmers ambush Fox at his tree home, shoot off his tail, and force him and other woodland animals deep underground. While the farmers stake out the hole and wait for the animals to emerge, Fox and his friends dig to the farms and make off with the rest of the food.
The use of stop motion animation enhances many of the stylistic flourishes and thematic ideas that run throughout Anderson’s films. Characters in The Royal Tenenbaums or The Life Aquatic could be described as cartoonish because of their unique walk and repetitive wardrobe. Fox and his friends maintain that sensibility in their specifically colored wardrobe and stylized movement. Just like in Anderson’s live-action films, Fantastic Mr. Fox feels more like a re-enactment of life than realism, with the attention to detail so remarkably precise. However, there is a choppy quality to the animation that is occasionally surprising and calls attention to the fact that none of these characters are perfect.
The characters refer to themselves as “wild animals” no fewer than a dozen times throughout the movie and this is smartly used to capture the theme most present in Dahl’s book and throughout Anderson’s canon. All of the characters in Fantastic Mr. Fox are animals dressed in people clothing. No matter what they wear, or surround themselves with, they can never escape their true animal nature. This battle between the external neatness and internal strife is a theme present in all of Anderson’s films, but here it is at its most literal.
Along with several regulars like Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, and Owen Wilson the film is packed with A-list voice talent. Unlike lesser animated films that assemble superstars only for their marquee value, Anderson infuses the personalities of each performer in the animal character that they inspire. Bill Murray’s Mole is less nimble than his acolytes; Willem Dafoe’s Rat has searing eyes and a sharp gaze, and Jason Schwartzman’s Ash is hilariously lacking self-awareness. It feels like these animals couldn’t be voiced by anybody else, just like the movie feels like it couldn’t be directed by anybody else, even if it was via e-mail.