Today Criterion issues a gorgeous new Blu-Ray edition of “Fantastic Mr. Fox” with lots of great behind-the-scenes extras. Director Wes Anderson has often seemed more interested in his films’ props and sets than the characters and stories. His last movie’s most memorable character was a set of luggage (The Darjeeling Limited). The previous one’s most memorable image was a cutaway that turned a sea-going vessel into a sort of doll’s house (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou). And so perhaps it is not surprising that his liveliest and most appealing movie is “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” a story told through stop-motion animation, every shot filled with precise and intricate detail. This is movie-making as Cornell Box.
The effect might be suffocating but for Anderson’s superbly chosen collaborators. While his previous films have been based on original material, this time he uses a beloved book by one of the foremost children’s book authors of the late 20th century, Road Dahl (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory James and the Giant Peach). And as voice talent, he has George Clooney and Meryl Streep, whose smooth, subtle performances lend emotional grounding to balance Anderson’s clever but claustrophobic tendencies.
It’s a Peter Rabbit-style story, with the title character in a battle with three farmers: “Boggis, Bunce, and Bean, one fat, one short, one lean,” according to a taunting children’s song. Fox (Clooney) agreed to stop stealing from the farmers when Mrs. Fox (Streep) became pregnant and has settled into a foxy middle-class life, working as a newspaper columnist. But he feels the call of the wild — and the call of the farmers’ plump chickens, apple cider, and geese. He starts stealing again, bringing down the wrath of the farmers on the whole animal kingdom. It is up to Fox to find a way to save them all.
The theme of the call of the wild comes up several times as the story shifts back and forth between ultra-civilization (Fox wears a shirt and tie) and the animal instincts of the non-human characters. The combination of the very familiar (Fox’s son Ash feels neglected, especially after his more talented and cool cousin comes to stay), the very cerebral (the “Oceans 11”-style heist plans), and the strangely feral (watch the way Fox eats) keeps the story as intriguing as the tiny props and costumes and the odd, stiff movements of the stop-motion figures. Unlike plasticine-based stop-motion (“Coraline,” “Wallace and Gromit”), the high-touch textures of the figures make them seem like toys come to life.
The screen is filled with enticing details, but it is the performances that keep us connected to what is going on. The script is filled with arcane non sequiturs but the warmth of those voices, with able support from Anderson’s brother Eric and regulars Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, and Owen Wilson, keep us in the story. And that really is fantastic.