Indie directors helming children's projects seems to be the trend in theaters this fall. October brought us Spike Jonze taking on Where the Wild Things Are, and now Wes Anderson brings audiences Roald Dahl's classic, Fantastic Mr. Fox. If any director has stronger art-house cred than Jonze, it is Anderson. No one achieves a sense of melancholy quite so well, and no one else is as consistent at stamping his own peculiar aesthetics on his work.
So, like Jonze, it would be quite a surprise if Anderson suddenly turned out a film crafted for wide commercial appeal even if kids are its target audience. Fantastic Mr. Fox may be rated PG for action and smoking, but its dark tone (plus one other troubling element we'll get to in a moment) make it more worthy of parental previewing than other animated films with that rating.
In a way, that's entirely appropriate. Dahl's stories are darker than the majority of children's works popular these days. But past film adaptations like James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory took more standard approaches to them. Even when they were live action, they used big, cartoony voices for the characters; big, silly or ominous music to create mood; and big, over-the-top visuals to dazzle little eyes. But there's nothing big here save for the specificity of the vision. The lines read by George Clooney and Meryl Streep as Mr. and Mrs. Fox are issued with a quiet deadpan that create Anderson's trademark mix of sadness and humor. The action is underscored by low-key tunes (often to hilarious effect), and the stop-action claymation look couldn't be further from the 3-D extravaganzas most studios are releasing.
But it's not only Anderson's easy touch with the external elements that separates Fox from the pack. So does his subtle reworking of the story. Longtime fans (and I confess to being in that number) will find a familiar theme. From Rushmore to The Royal Tennenbaums to The Darjeeling Limited, every Anderson film has dissected the damaging effects a father (or father figure) can have on his children. And kiddie flick or no, Fox is no exception. The story still hinges on Mr. Fox and his friends stealing chickens and other goods from the mean Messrs. Boggis, Bunce, and Bean, but the obliviousness Mr. Fox shows to his son's needs adds a refreshingly realistic edge. He's not a villain nor does he experience an extreme change of heart-he's just a clueless dad in need of a little more sensitivity.
Unfortunately, just as Anderson's strengths are on full display, so is his Achilles heel. At times his attempts to maintain a sense of insider hipness grow too self-conscious and limiting, and a running "cuss" gag works that way here. Instead of actual curse words, the furry characters substitute the word cuss for dialogue like "What the cuss" and "It's becoming a cluster-cuss." A few kids may not get it (but plenty will), and had Anderson dropped the tiresome punchline it not only would have been a nice concession to the genre he's working in, it would have shown he's matured enough to drop his occasionally elitist tone.
Beyond that exception, nearly every other joke hits the mark for those with an arid sense of humor. I probably laughed out loud more in this movie than in any other animated film this year, but most kids (and many of their parents) won't. That fact doesn't suggest that Fantastic Mr. Fox shouldn't have been produced, only that, as ticket sales are already demonstrating, few children will be drawn to this movie. Of those few, though, there will be some who resonate with Anderson's spare, witty vision and clutch it to their hearts the way they do the story it sprang from.