Whatever else it is, Fantastic Mr. Fox is bang on brief: a Wes Anderson interpretation of a Roald Dahl creation.
In other words, a quirky American sensibility brought to the grand-daddy of quintessentially English children’s authors. Quentin Tarantino doing Wordsworth might make for a similar coupling- interesting and accomplished but sort of very wrong.
The rustic-style stop-frame animation in a rural countryside setting is nostalgic and inhabited by three farmers who are nicely menacing, albeit in a slightly odd ‘Lock, Stock’ way. The script is witty, the music inventive.
But drop George Clooney, characters called Kristofferson and a sushi joint in the village marketplace and it gets a tad derailed.
The two main problems with the movie are also its selling points: Anderson’s style and the Clooney superbrand.
By means of a small but well-formed body of work Anderson has created one of the most distinctive film-making footprints in Hollywood: visually rich, theatre-like set-pieces; functioning dysfunctioning high-brow family units; a plot segmented by witty titles, wrapped in a droll humour relatively new to American comedy (We get irony! We love The Office!).
It’s a rejection of schmaltz in favour of emotional authenticity, offset using stranger than fiction characters as vehicles.
There’s no doubt a weasel real estate agent delivery predictable sales patter about a walnut tree is funny and the naming of the animals by their original Latin terms in order to motivate them has an intelligent charm.
But wasn’t this a book written for kiddies? Scenes that refer to Mrs. Fox’s easy virtue pre-marriage and end with the line, ‘I love you but I should never have married you’ suggest this detail may have slipped through the net.
Nevertheless, it is actually this sort of Anderson trickery that holds the attention, the story somehow falling short of the promise of the title as Mr. Fox reveals himself to be more arse-tastic than fantastic.
Despite his wild animal instincts defense it is hard not to feel irked by his self-inflicted predicament, which he manages to exacerbate on the behalf of his family and friends with a series of substance-less ‘plans’, to the point where the plot summary might have read, ‘annoying fox forces mean farmers to terrorise him further and further underground’.
Of course, they all pop up again in a balls-out action scene at the end but they are still living in bare cells below ground level and not in a light-filled hill-top tree, their hunting imperative replace with supermarket aisle treats.
When I left the cinema it was George Clooney rather than his furry alter-ego who left a taste in my mouth and not in the smooth, velvety chocolate way of popular myth.
The character he voices and the one he projects in real life blend so seamlessly it is hard to imagine Anderson would have proceeded with the project without Clooney’s acceptance of the role.
The result is that it’s hard to know where the oleaginous national treasure with the unerring sense of his own significance end and the movie’s eponymous hero begins. What Mr. Fox really needed was a lovable rogue to redeem his selfish actions when what he got was the poster boy of smug reinforcing them.
I am unrepresentative of an adoring Clooney strong-hold and Anderson’s artistry is undeniable.
But ultimately the movie is a vintage wooden toy: original, flawed and intended for the amusement of children, destined to be appreciated as an artwork by parents.