Get ready for descriptors like sly, quirky, witty and clever. They've become trademark film-writing adjectives, good or bad, of Wes Anderson (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, Darjeeling Limited). And now, with its retro-handcrafted animation and impish dialogue, Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach's adaptation of Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mr. Fox is headed for similar vernacular.
Truth be told, the film earns each and every trite superlative. Adorned with all the adolescent fetishes of his previous films — maps, stylized landscapes, vibrant colors and textures, oddball characters and blasts of obscure classic rock — its stop-action animation world suits Anderson, allowing him to create the perfect playground for his deadpan sense of humor and relentless examination of familial anxiety.
The tale, as you might expect from Dahl, crosses into the mordant, which Anderson navigates with ease, and his low-tech, unassuming animation softens the story's darker aspects.
The vocal ensemble, for a change, actually seems to be acting, with George Clooney enthusiastically leaping in as the arrogant Mr. Fox, who gave up his days of livestock thievery to placate his wife (voiced by Meryl Streep) and raise a family. Now a newspaper writer, he has a stable home life, neurotic son (voiced by Jason Schwartzman) and a deep longing to be true to his nature. Committed to one last major score, Fox enlists pal Kyle (Wally Wolodarsky) and athletic nephew Kristofferson (voiced by Wes' brother Eric Anderson) to raid three nearby farms — all owned by wealthy, vicious farmers. Unfortunately, this incites Farmer Bean (voiced by Michael Gambon), the trio's nastiest, to wage war on Fox's family and friends.
As a kid's flick, Mr. Fox never condescends, but sometimes forgets to get down on its hands and knees to give children a fuller picture. Anderson also tends to favor mannered jokes over insight, but his small comical flourishes — Kyle going all swirly-eyed crazy, Owen Wilson presiding over a ridiculously complicated fox sport — will probably tickle audiences of all ages.
Ultimately, it's the filmmaker's skillful approach to character creation that elevates Mr. Fox. Anderson presents each personality and relationship with quick, concise strokes, giving him time to artfully show Dahl's complicated narrative and fleshed-out universe. Of course, Anderson's own obsessions with manliness, alienation and family bonding are all fully displayed, but there's little of the precious, neurotic navel-gazing that has undermined his more recent efforts. Instead, his melancholic humanism sets just the right tone, perfectly counterbalancing the kooky jokes and outlandish conceits. Be true to yourself is Mr. Fox's takeaway, and Anderson has once again done just that.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.