Fantastic Mr. Fox marks writer/director Wes Anderson's first foray into the realm of feature length stop-motion animation, creating a fun amalgam of his understated humor and a healthy dose of nostalgia. It's the second movie I've seen recently based on a children's story that's made by, and aimed at, kids of my generation--'70s kids. In that regard it's a rather cool reminder of the holiday gems of my youth like the stop-motion Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or Emmet Otter's Jug Band Christmas, though with a grown-up aesthetic that falls in line with Anderson's and co-writer Noah Baumbach's (The Squid and the Whale) indie film sensibilities.
Mr. Fox (George Clooney) suffers an existential crisis when his wife, Felicity (Meryl Streep), reveals her pregnancy and makes him promise to stop stealing chickens. A couple of years pass and Mr. Fox, now a newspaper columnist, is living paycheck to paycheck with Felicity and raising their young son Ash (Jason Schwartzman) in a somewhat less then desirable foxhole.
Feeling the need to move on up, Foxy relocates his family into a considerably plusher tree on a hill directly across from a complex of buildings owned by three farmers, Walter Boggis, Nathan Bunce, and Franklin Bean. His lawyer, Badger (Bill Murray), tries to convince him it's a bad idea, insisting that it's a dangerous neighborhood for foxes (perhaps suspecting Foxy won't long be able to resist his nature). But Mr. Fox moves his family anyway--just in time to take in Felicity's nephew Kristofferson (Eric Anderson).
Despite seeming like a nice fox, Kristofferson raises Ash's ire simply for being talented and well liked by everyone, perhaps more so than Ash himself. Mr. Fox's existential malaise resurfaces when he hatches a plan for one last big score of chicken stealing, and he brings Kristofferson and his absent-minded building superintendent, an opossum named Kylie (Wallace Wolodarsky), in on the heist.
Instead of only hitting the chicken coop, Foxy decides to loot each of the farmers, Boggis of his chickens; Bunce of his geese; and Bean of his legendary alcoholic cider. The heists are a success, but a rat guarding the cider house (Willem Dafoe) tips off Bean to who and where the perpetrators are, and Mr. Bean (Michael Gambon) rallies the other farmers and all of their resources to kill the wily Mr. Fox.
Fantastic Mr. Fox is unlike any holiday film I've seen in a while. A holiday film is certainly what it is. The look of the film is dressed in autumnal burnt orange tones and stark landscapes, and there are certainly the themes of family, camaraderie and revelry that accompany the season. Taking a closer look, it seems the writers have turned Roald Dahl's original story, which I haven't had the pleasure of reading, in a slightly allegorical direction concerning the industrialization of the food business. The problem is that I can't go into details without blowing the rest of the flick.
Suffice it to say, there is a bit more going on under the hood than you would find in your standard holiday fare. The humor is decidedly wry, relying on the subdued voice acting--all of which is excellently done--and precise comedic timing that, again, is not the norm for a kind of film where normally every beat is obviously telegraphed for easy consumption.
It's very much a '70s aesthetic, down to the rougher animation style that utilizes armatures with actual hair. That might seem inconsequential, but that hair gets mussed whenever an animator touches the model, which gives the unique effect of the hair rustling without wind that goes all the way back to King Kong. It's something of a flaw inherent to the technique, but the fact that Anderson purposefully went that route just tells me he knows exactly the look and tone he's trying to achieve. Fantastic Mr. Fox pulls off the look of a '70s-era film better than almost any recent film I've seen that tried to emulate the distinct look of movies from that period.
But is it funny? I had a few laughs, and the film kept a smile plastered on my face the entire time, but I'd be hard pressed to say that it's comedic gold.
It's very much in Anderson's vein of comedy, and I've found that mileage varies with his style of arch, deadpan and self-aware humor.
Perhaps getting some fresh co-writing blood helped because I really haven't enjoyed a Wes Anderson film this much since Rushmore.
Fantastic Mr. Fox is an uptick in the trend of diminishing returns I've seen from him with films like The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Still, I think I probably enjoyed Fantastic Mr. Fox more for its techniques on a whole rather than the sum of its occasionally brilliant parts.
It succeeded best at reminding me of the warm glow I used to get when I was a kid at the prospect of long nights, family gatherings around the table, and opening presents under a starry tree. I have no idea what the hell an actual kid would make of it.
As a love letter to its namesake city, Paris is a curiously gossamer experience. It's as if the film aspires to be a time capsule appreciated by future Parisian audiences as opposed to contemporary film-goers of any extraction. That's not even a criticism per se, as much as an observation, and observing is what writer/director Cédric Klapisch seems content to do.
Intertwining the lives of an ensemble cast in a decidedly Short Cuts-like fashion, Paris knits together their stories in a meandering pace that is, at once, pleasant and trying.
We meet Pierre (Romain Duris), a dancer who has just been diagnosed with a fatal heart condition, and his divorced sister Élise (Juliette Binoche), a social worker who moves in with Pierre to help him, but also to reconnect with him (it's hinted they haven't always had the best relationship). The life-changing nature of their situation causes them both to take stock of their lives.
Then there is Roland (Fabrice Luchini) a history professor who takes a well paying gig on a popular television show about French history because he's afraid of winding up like his cloistered colleagues, absorbed in academic minutia that no one but other academics cares about. Roland agonizes that he's nothing like his brother Phillip, a successful architect with a "normal" life (i.e. pretty wife, important job, kid on the way). He soon finds himself stalking one of his students, Laetitia (Mélanie Laurent, recently seen in Inglourious Basterds), a vapid but stunning beauty who happens to live across the street from Pierre and Élise and who gets more than a little creeped out by Roland's anonymous text messages that profess his attraction by quoting French poets.
Roland's brother Phillip is on the verge of a breakdown due to the stress of the huge urban renewal project that he has designed and must oversee. But wait, that's not all. We also have Jean (Albert Dupontel), a fruit vendor at the local farmers market who is trying to get over a separation from his wife Caroline (Julie Ferrier), who also works at the market and whose flaunting of her newly single status torments him. Jean has eyes for Élise, though, who comes to his stand to buy fruit. Add in several other sub-characters that loosely orbit the lives of the main characters, including a North African beauty named Khadija (Sabrina Ouazani), who catches Pierre's eye, and Benoit (Kingsley Kum Abang) a Cameroonian trying to emigrate to France (who is being aided by his brother with the help of Élise), and you have the convoluted gist of it all. Stop me before I parenthesize again.
The performances are fine across the board, and the film rarely resorts to dramatic devices that feel contrived (and none I could give away without spoiling things). Juliette Binoche stands out, making the act of looking amazing seem second hand. Imagine if you could divorce what you know of Julia Roberts from her actual performances, and that is what you get here: a strikingly beautiful woman who seems just at home buying fruit, with three kids in tow, as she would if she were portraying French royalty.
Paris is a little disorienting in the beginning, but all the players eventually fall into place. The film could have used fewer of them, however, because a couple of the sub-plots and their corresponding characters go nowhere. I think that was the intent, though.
How often in your life's cast of friends and family do tangential relationships penetrate your sphere only to be flung back into space by the retro-gravity of your world? Some people maintain orbit, while some do not. It's just natural and that's how Paris feels. The city itself is a character, too, and is beautifully composed in the eyes of Cédric Klapisch and his cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne. It doesn't feel like a complete portrait, though.
The film makes only a passing reference to some of the city's ills and life there and--for the most part--seems quite idyllic. Only the everyday problems of the uniformly attractive main characters are in focus, and the film never dwells too long on the harsher realities outside of them--a dropped sub-plot concerning a homeless man exemplifies this perfectly.
Paris, the city, is as lovely and lonely as any being that seems immortal. It's an enigmatic feeling that provides a nice contrast to the very mortal frailties of the people that populate it. That's what I meant earlier about the film's time capsule vibe, as if Parisians in a far flung future would see this film and trace not only the golden thread of their national character but also be content in how little it changes. History may alter her face, but the heart of Paris remains the same.
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