Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox remains one of the most loved books of my childhood. My twin and our friend would demand to listen to the audio cassette whenever we were driven anywhere. I still have incredibly fond memories of this book so it was with a certain amount of apprehension that I sat down to watch Wes Anderson’s adaptation. His quirky style and fondness for more unique characters should be the perfect accompaniment to Dahl’s own style of writing but things don’t always work out the way they should. So how would one of my favourite directors fair with this significant piece of my childhood?
Fantastic Mr Fox is hardly an epic tale so Anderson and Noah Baumbach have had to flesh out the narrative a bit but all of the key points are there. After a pretty close-call, Mr Fox promises his wife that he will stop stealing birds and instead settle down into family life. He finds his subsequent work as a journalist dull so comes up with a three-part assault on the farms of his vicious neighbours, Boggis, Bunce and Bean. As Mr Fox goes all Ocean’s 11 on us, his son, Ash, struggles to live up to family name and gain his father’s respect. When his impressive cousin Kristofferson joins the family, the young fox finds himself even more removed from his fantastic parent.
This type of sub-plot, packed with troubled father/son relationships, is nothing new for either Anderson or Baumbach, which is perhaps why it feels a little stale and unnecessary. The angst of the teenage Ash and jealousy towards his cousin is such an overworked cliché that even placing animals at the centre of the drama cannot make it seem fresh. Unfortunately, the theft is over in the blink of an eye and the resulting conflict is pushed into the background once the familial plot takes over. Once the animals find themselves seeking refuge underground, the plot has worn so thin that the audience is simply faced with an unoriginal soap opera style plot.
Although at least a soap opera would be able to provide terrifying enemies. Dahl is not afraid to place his characters and his young readers in the presence of a real and terrifying danger. The main disappointment of this film is the farmers themselves. They are not the grotesque images of evil that the original text summons up. They are instead rather pathetic individuals finding themselves in a, frankly, utterly petty war. The farmers are presented as so pathetic and witless that there never appears to be any real danger for the animals. It is only in the form of the vicious Rat, voiced expertly by Willem Defoe, and a terrifying rabid dog that any real tension is created.
As with all Anderson’s film you get the sense that every detail has been thought out. The look of the characters, the backgrounds and the colour scheme. The film primarily makes use of autumnal colours and is littered with various yellows, oranges, and browns. It is only in Kristofferson that we see a rare glimpse at the colour blue so the audience is fully aware that he is an outsider.
The animation is much more traditional and looks much less polished than contemporary animated offerings. The stop-motion animation brings to mind the works of animators like Oliver Postgate and is truly astounding, despite it’s potentially outdated feel. The detail on the puppets is breathtaking; just look at the way the foxes fur moves during the close-ups. We are not left with the brash and hectic Disney universe but with an understated world in keeping with Dahl’s own, very British, setting.
As you would expect, music plays an important part within the narrative and both the original scores and well-known pop songs fit into the ensemble perfectly. It is Jarvis Cocker’s Petey and his campfire song that leads to one of the film’s best scenes. Cocker’s ditty is played beneath images of Fox and his animal friends dancing in celebration. Watching as the crude puppets perform such adorable dance moves is a sight to behold complemented expertly by Cocker‘s performance. At least Fantastic Mr Fox is a constant treat for the eyes even when the narrative proves a little disappointing.
Although I did like Anderson’s film. I think it had a lot to live up to and it’s entirely possible that I’m just being a bit too stubborn because of my vested interest. The narrative, though nothing ground-breaking, is still a pretty decent script and enjoyable for a mixed audience. Were is a film not grounded in both literary and personal history then I’d probably have been jumping for joy. The wonderful story of Dahl’s original novel may have been lost in translation somewhat but when it is presented in such a charming and beautiful way, with such an amazing array of voices and a tremendous soundtrack, I’m not really sure how much that actually matters.