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.
“More of this is true than you would believe,” “The Men Who Stare at Goats” cheekily informs us as it opens. And while its tone is high satire, even farce, the story it tells is not hard to believe at all. Military officials are portrayed as credulous, ineffectual, and petty. But they are also portrayed as candid, open-minded, and forthright. Much of what goes on in the military’s 20-plus-year exploration of what we used to call the “human potential movement” seems outlandish, but those were outlandish times. And one aspect rings especially true. According to this film, based on the non-fiction book by debunking Welsh journalist Jon Ronson, the real reason the US and the USSR entered into these “new age” programs was that each was convinced the other was doing it. So much for the efficacy of “remote viewing.”
That would be the power to see something mentally that could not be seen visually, either because it was too far away or on the other side of a wall. This division, led by Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), whose long, gray braid hangs down over his fatigues, experiments with all categories of extra-sensory perception including telekinesis (the ability to affect objects without touching them), clairvoyance (the ability to read minds), and precognition (the ability to predict the future).
Jeff Bridges, as a Viet Nam vet who explores the new age fads of the 1970’s, one hot tub at a time, conveys slightly seedy optimism in the early days of the program and shows us the consequences of too much mind-bending at the end. Kevin Spacey is the ambitious psychiatrist who guides the program as it mutates from exploring what our troops can do to exploring how what we have learned can take away from the humanity of the enemy troops we capture. George Clooney centers the film as the most gifted of the program’s subjects, a man who seeks some way to integrate his abilities and experiences to find some meaning in the effort. But Ewan McGregor never convinces us that he is a dumped husband, a reporter, or an American. The reference to Jedi warriors just reminds us of his role as Obi-Wan Kenobi in the “Star Wars” movies and makes his appearance seem like an in-joke.
The light-heartedness of the movie’s tone goes from pratfall humor to a wrenching depiction of the consequences of foolishness. It is smart enough not to be entirely dismissive of the idea that some or all people may have some uncharted capabilities we should try to understand and focus. But it is clear that none of that will do much good against a gun and that the efforts to pursue it may lead to extensive personal and organizational trauma. The main character is unhappy that his scoop is almost entirely ignored when it is published. The media picks up only on the side detail that Barney music was used to break the spirits of prisoners. The pernicious influence of that song appears to have been the only usable information produced by the program; something that any parent of a toddler could have conveyed with great enthusiasm. If this movie directs more attention to Ronson’s findings, that will be gratifying to him, but to us it should also be an important lesson about how one factor in allowing large organizations get out of control is that no one is paying attention.
My beloved spoke, and said unto me: ‘Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away. For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land; The fig-tree putteth forth her green figs, and the vines in blossom give forth their fragrance. Song of Solomon
Daffodils that come before the swallow dares and take the winds of March with beauty. Shakespeare, A Winter’s Tale
spring when the world is mud-
when the world is puddle-wonderful E. E. Cummings
These movies celebrate the return of longer days, milder breezes, and a sense of promise and renewal.
1. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers Bachelor mountain men brothers capture young women from the town one winter so they can marry them. An avalanche blocks off the pass and keeps their families from coming after them. But the women are furious and banish the men to the barn — until spring thaw, when everyone comes outside to enjoy the weather and sing Johnny Mercer’s lyrics: “Oh, the barnyard is busy in a regular tizzy, And the obvious reason is because of the season. Ma Nature’s lyrical, with her yearly miracle. Spring, Spring, Spring.”
2. The Secret Garden There are three excellent versions of this classic book about the sour orphan and her ailing cousin who are both made whole and healthy when they find a locked garden and bring it back to life. My favorite is the British miniseries, which is the closest to the text, but I love them all.
3. State Fair The only Rodgers and Hammerstein show written directly for the screen takes place at the end of the summer, but it has one of the greatest songs ever written about spring, the Oscar-winning “It Might as Well Be Spring.” The lovely Jeanne Crain sings, “I am starry eyed and vaguely discontented, like a nightingale without a song to sing, O why should I have spring fever, when it isn’t even spring.”
4. Random Harvest One of the sweetest love stories in the movies is about a merry young woman who falls for a man who has lost his memory. They get married and are very happy until he regains his memory and goes back to his old life, no longer able to remember her or their life together. A lot more happens over many years, and the final scene takes place by the lilacs on a spring day that shows us — and the couple — all we need to know about renewal.
5. Where the Boys Are Four girls leave their snowy college campus for spring break in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. It was considered very racy back in 1960 for its discussion of premarital sex (including one character who pays a very heavy penalty for having sex with a boy she barely knows) but is something of an artifact these days. Still the performances by Dolores Hart (who later became a nun), Jim Hutton, and Paula Prentiss and the themes of finding a way to balance intimacy and self-respect still hold up.
6. Bambi “Nearly everybody gets twitter-patted in the springtime,” says the owl in this animated Disney classic about the young fawn. The spring scenes are among the most enchanting in a woodland story about young animals growing up. (NOTE: some scary scenes including a forest fire and a hunter who shoots the deer)
7. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring An isolated Buddhist monastery sits on a quiet lake in the middle of a forest, where one monk and his very young apprentice live a life of quiet prayer and contemplation. The film takes us through the seasons of the younger man’s life, from childhood through old age, with the final spring as a time of renewal, the now-old monk teaching his own young apprentice about life’s cycles and interconnections.
8. The Four Seasons Alan Alda wrote and directed a film that takes four couples through a year to the music of Vivaldi. It begins with a spring trip to the country, when they cook an elaborate dinner and plan the rest of their trips together for the rest of the year. But one couple breaks up and the husband wants to bring his new young girlfriend, it leads to some mid-life questions about meaning, trust, and loyalty. Alda’s wise script and sensitive direction and outstanding performances from Carol Burnett, Len Cariou, Jack Weston, and Rita Moreno make this one of the best films ever about grown-up friendship.
9. “It Happens Every Spring” Ray Milland stars in a sweet fantasy about a baseball-loving professor who invents a chemical that acts as a wood repellent. He realizes that if he rubs a little on a baseball glove, it makes him the greatest pitcher in the world because the bats cannot connect with the ball. Written by the author of “Miracle on 34th Street,” this is a gentle fairy tale with some of Hollywood’s greatest character actors among the players and a hark back to an era before steroid scandals and superstar salaries.
10. The First of May This modest little gem is the story of a boy named Cory (“Cougar Town’s” Dan Byrd) who runs off one spring to join the circus. It is a sweet, episodic story with many magical moments, including delightful backstage glimpses of life in the big top. Co-stars include the brilliant Julie Harris and Mickey Rooney and Cory even gets some batting advice from Joe DiMaggio, who appears as himself. Families of all kinds will respond to this story about people who triumph over a series of obstacles to create a family for themselves.
Bindi Irwin, daughter of the late “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin, stars in her first feature film, “Free Willy: Escape from Pirate’s Cove.” Inspired by the popular series of movies about a boy and a whale, this new adventure is about Kirra (Irwin), an Australian girl who visits her grandfather (Beau Bridges) in South Africa for the summer. When she discovers a stranded baby orca she names him Willy. She and her grandfather must help the whale get back to his pod before a greedy theme park owner steals him.
I spoke to Bindi and her mother Terri in the studios at a local public radio channel, WAMU, where she was appearing on their Animal House show. Bindi is a joy to talk to — so bright and friendly but also fearless and very passionate about animals, just like her dad.
I have one copy of the DVD to give away to the first person who sends me an email at email@example.com with “Bindi” in the subject line.
This is your first time acting. You’ve done a lot of documentary-style filming, but this was quite different.
I play a little girl called Kirra Cooper. She does not take no for an answer! This was my first time being someone else and being in a movie and it was very exciting. She was different from me but there was one similarity. She was trying to save this Orca called Willy, who washed over the lagoon wall and into my grandfather’s theme park. And in real life, I am trying to save the Steve Irwin wildlife preserve. It’s in Australia, up on Cape York and it’s in danger of being strip-mined. You can go to our website at Australia Zoo and sign a petition.
And how is Kirra different from you?
I can tell you a funny story about that! In one scene, I had to get really, really angry at the bad guy. My cheeks were getting all red and I was all grumpy. And I went back to the trailer and my mother said, “Bindi, I’ve never seen you that mad!” And I said, “I’ve never seen me that mad, either!” It was really fun to get a chance to do that. Beau Bridges was such an inspiration and he helped me so much. He gave me the book Acting: The First Six Lessons and I listened to it in audio and now I’m reading it, too.
Tell me about working with Beau Bridges!
It was so nice because my mum’s dad died a little over a year ago and so he became like another grandfather to me. In one scene he said when I was going to sleep, “Don’t let the bedbugs bite!” And that was heartwarming because that is what my grandfather used to say to me before I went to bed. I was also glad to work with someone who had been working in movies since he was six years old.
Did you film on location?
We got to go to South Africa for the very first time. My dad had been there before filming documentary films but there was political unrest and malaria so we did not get to go along. While we were filming my brother Robert went off and got to see Africa. His favorite animal is the chameleon and now I don’t think there is a single chameleon in Africa un-wrangled by Robert.
If you said “Boo” to me I wouldn’t sleep for two weeks! I don’t like scary movies. But I love my dad’s movie “Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course” and I liked doing this because it was like his. It isn’t just an action-packed fun family movie. You’d accidentally learn something, too. And there’s a great kid empowerment message. Kirra stands up for herself. She has a voice. A while ago I saw a very old movie and it had a man who said, “Children should be seen and not heard.” And I had to ask my mum what that meant! She said some people thought that children should not have opinions or have a voice. And I really believe we’re the next voters, we’re the next decision-makers, we are the generation making a difference on our planet to decide what will happen on this planet, so we should have a voice and be able to make decisions.
What was the most fun scene to work on?
They were all a lot of fun but the funniest was when I had to be eating an ice cream. But it was mashed potatoes! I’ll never look at ice cream in a movie the same way! They have to do that so it wouldn’t drip everywhere.
What’s the best advice you got about making the movie?
I was so used to documentary filming where it’s one take. You can’t really say, “Make that elephant charge again!” And you talk to the camera. With movie filming you’re talking to someone else. And Beau told me to think of it like you’re having a conversation. That really helped me. And everyone was lovely, even the crew. They all helped me so much. And we all laughed a lot of the time.
What should kids know about animals?
One of the great things that my dad told me was to treat animals the way you’d like to be treated. And it’d not just woodland creatures and conservation. Every time you lose an animal species, it’s like losing a brick from a house. Pretty soon the house just falls down. Snakes for example. People think they’re sticky and monstrous. But they’re cool and gorgeous. We live in a zoo and we get to share all our animals with the people who come in. We really put our animals first, and then the staff, and then the visitors. The animals aren’t pacing; they’re all happy. When you touch an animal, it ultimately touches you.
Do you have a favorite animal?
I love snakes and crocodiles but my favorite is the echidna, like the porcupine they have here. When a predator tries to grab them they curl up into a little ball. Whoever thought them up was very creative! Every August we go to study the saltwater crocodile, the largest reptile on the face of the earth. There’s so much we don’t know about them. You can’t give them a sedative so in order to put in the trackers we actually have to jump on them, use human force. It’s a lot of fun. You haven’t lived until you’ve been lying on a dinosaur. He’s an apex predator, the top of the food chain. And gorgeous!
How can kids help conservation and animal protection?
We’re working with an organization called the Sea Shepherd to try to protect the whales. And we have Wildlife Warriors, a non-profit organization working on protecting the Cambodian forest elephants, with tigers and cheetahs. And we help to train shepherds so they can do a better job of protecting their herds.