Forget Pixar and its coldly calculated antiseptic perfection. Forget Zemeckis and his rather creepy motion-capture pseudo-humanity. Forget Dreamworks and their snarky wink and a nod pop culture mass marketability. Forget even Disney and its recent penchant for computer-concocted 3D imaginations. Give me old school animation any day. Be it hand drawn cel animation (which actually Disney is getting back to with their next release) or the quaint art of stop-motion animation, I am a sucker for the cartooning ways of yesteryear. To borrow from Bob Seger, go ahead and call me a relic, call me what you will. Say I'm old-fashioned, say I'm over the hill. Today's animation ain't got the same soul. Really, it just doesn't. Perhaps it's a nostalgia thing - trying to recapture my youth. My childhood of Bugs Bunny and Scooby-Doo. The Rankin/Bass holiday specials with Rudolph, Hermie and Yukon Cornelius. Perhaps it stems from those saturday afternoons watching the magic of Ray Harryhausen and his one-frame-at-a-time monsters coming to life on the screen. Whatever the case, I am always more wowed by the animation of old rather than that of the new. Which brings us to the latest film by Wes Anderson.
Anderson's antic stop-motion screwball comedy-cum-heist movie, Fantastic Mr. Fox, taken of course from the Roald Dahl classic children's book, is just that kind of old school cartooning I was talking about. With a purposely herky-jerky style, Anderson's inevitable venture into animation (his live-action films were often closer to animated fantasy than most filmmaker's work) is unlike any other animated film I have seen. Featuring the voices of George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, Willem Defoe and Bill Murray, and actually filmed on location on a farm (which is of course an extreme oddity for an animated motion picture - usually recorded in anonymous studios, one actor at a time) and whipped together with equal parts adaptation and improvisation, Anderson's quirky picture is a marvel to lose oneself in. With an attention to detail that has always been one of Anderson's trademarks (check out the acorn wallpaper, the wheat stalks in Mr. Fox's corduroy jacket, the bizarre knick-knacks in the background) Fantastic Mr. Fox is brimming with a constant motionality that takes the idea of stop-motion animation in a whole new direction.
Perhaps toning down parts of the original material (Dahl's story portrays the three human farmers who are trying to kill Fox and his family and friends as drunkards, too pissed on cider to actually ever catch the conniving critter band of outsiders) and combining others (Fox's four children here become one petulant under-achieving daydreamer of a son - played with a charming uneasiness by Schwartzman) makes the film work on a different level than Dahl's original, but then Anderson is working on his own unique level as it is, so who is to argue. Though quite reminiscent of the auteur's earlier works (especially the standoffish camaraderie of his Life Aquatic) and by no doubts a signature Anderson work, Fantastic Mr. Fox actually comes off as a sort of stop-motion Ocean's 14 (or whatever the next number in the series would be). This probably has a lot to do with Clooney's rather snotty title character acting as a fur-coated Danny Ocean, but it also has to do with the obvious fun the actors (animated or not) are having in the filmic adventures. Be it influenced by one of Anderson's own elaborately set live-action homages or Soderbergh's slick mayhem-filled uber-heist movies or Dahl's rather sardonic writing style, Fantastic Mr. Fox could be nothing other than stop-motion animation. To quote a friend of mine, "stop-motion is where it's at", and I wouldn't want it any other way. [12/19/09]