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Monday, February 24, 2014

FANTASTIC MR. FOX Criterion Review

Courtesy of The Criterion Collection
Criterion Review
2009, 87 minutes
Rated PG for action, smoking and slang humor

Review by Joshua Handler

Note: Due to time, I was unable to view the film with audio commentary and was unable to view the hour-long documentary "Fantastic Mr. Dahl" included on this disc.  Otherwise, everything else was viewed.

Wes Anderson's meticulously-made Fantastic Mr. Fox is an odd beast.  It is a film based on a children's book by Roald Dahl, yet the film itself really isn't geared towards children.  Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach (Frances Ha, The Squid and the Whale) throw in some of their usual themes: marital dysfunction, teenage angst, and the troubles with growing older.  In fact, Fantastic Mr. Fox really is about facing middle age and celebrating differences.  It is about trying to make something of your life and trying to do what you love.

Mr. Fox (the voice of George Clooney) loves to steal food for himself and his family.  He can't help it - he's a fox and does it because he loves it and needs to survive.  However, after a near-death experience in his younger days, he promises his wife (the voice of Meryl Streep) that he'd stop stealing.  Years later, he has a family, is now a journalist, and he feels himself getting older.  The joie de vivre is gone.  One day, though, Mr. Fox decides to do one last job to get that spark back, but that one job isn't enough to satisfy his need to steal.

The themes dealt with in Fox aren't kid-relatable, but they are universal themes that nearly all adults or even teens can relate to to some degree.  Anyone can look at the gorgeous stop-motion animation, the warmly-colored sets, and the deliberate camera moves, but if you look below the shining surface, you can find a startling amount of insight, humanity, and even warmth.

Because this is a Wes Anderson film, all of the characters have their quirks and are all the more lovable because of them.  Embracing differences is a theme of many animated films, but rarely is that theme explored so humanly as it is here.  Every animal character feels like a human.  They're all given human qualities and they are always treated like humans, making them instantly relatable.

Many people claim that Anderson's films are style over substance with little humanity, but I see him as a humanist.  No director celebrates differences and the different stages of life like Wes Anderson.  Moonrise Kingdom celebrated the joy of being young and being in love.  All of the production design was in service of the themes and characters.  The world was designed to look like how the kids at the film's center see the it.  The Darjeeling Limited (a highly underrated film) is a beautiful exploration of brotherhood and the period before middle age.  Rushmore is a celebration of youth and teenage rebellion, and The Royal Tenenbaums is about the generations interacting.  And, as mentioned, Fox is about middle age and the mid-life crisis.

The Criterion Collection's new Blu-ray/DVD combo pack of Fantastic Mr. Fox has a slew of special features including a version of the film told entirely through storyboards and the actors' voices.  I watched a bit of this and can say that it is very interesting, but for die-hards only.  Additionally, there are a lot of featurettes on the making of the film.  Watching how the sets were designed and the puppets were made gave me an even deeper appreciation for the film.  My favorite special feature on this disc is a discussion and analysis of the film by two young kids.  Their answers to the discussion questions are occasionally inventive and always amusing.  Their perspective is so different from mine or most of yours so watching them analyze the film is fascinating and very funny.  What's most interesting, though, is their speaking patterns and how through those, one can trace their thought processes.

Overall, Criterion's edition of Fantastic Mr. Fox is fantastic, as all of their releases are.  Fox is a deceptively simple film that, while not my favorite of Anderson's, is certainly an impressive accomplishment and a meaningful piece of storytelling.

Film: 3.5/4
Special Features: 4/4
Overall: Well-worth buying

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