Movies are experiences. The bad ones are bad because they don’t move you. It reminds me of something this guy Jesus said once, about spitting the lukewarm out. Anyway, the great ones are great because they happen in such a way that you will remember the first time you saw them like a first date, or the first time you rode a bike, or the first time you got drunk. Or maybe you were even at a movie for a few of these (probably not the bike). They become landmarks, bookmarks on a journey, flags for memories or memories themselves.
I remember seeing the Wachowski brothers’ Speed Racer last year. There was a set of directors with a very discernible visual flair, an adult sensibility adapting their process to fit a family film. Boy did I love that movie, which maybe I’ll defend some other time. But at the end of that screening, kids in the theater ran to the front of the room jumping and laughing and racing under the light of the screen. It moved them.
This year, we have Wes Anderson’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox, where a visually distinctive and gifted director takes to the kiddie genre adapting Roald Dahl’s book of the same name. It concerns the exploits of a fox, Mr. Fox to be particular, who is fantastic. He has enough panache, class, charm, cunning and he’s sly, well, like a fox (more or less a perfect role for George Clooney, used to playing this bit in the Oceans flicks). He and his wife, Mrs. Fox (a role lifted by the great Meryl Streep who teaches a course here on the uses of inflection and tone in acting, even through the face of a clay fox that makes the character endearing, supportive, suffer-able) used to run around stealing chickens, see, from these three grotesque goons of farmers, Boggis, Bunce and Bean…that is until Mrs. Fox becomes pregnant and asks Mr. to get out of the game. Some fox years later (I think two human years), Mr. Fox is a paper-man who wonders if anyone reads his columns (I’ll avoid telling you how this amuses a room full of critics) with a son who is “different/weird” and longs to be smooth like pops (Jason Schwartzman). Meanwhile, a smooth cousin comes to move in, and when Mr. Fox invests in an expensive above-ground tree to live in, well, he’s ripe to get back into the chicken business — a move that eventually engages the animal community and the axis of farming evil in an all-out war.
That’s the story of Fox. The experience the movie created left the critics I saw it with dancing in the aisles much like those kids at Speed Racer last year. No, I’m not kidding. I saw two guys dancing.
That adult dancing is indicative of how Anderson took to melding his sensibilities with this children’s film against, say, the Wachowskis’ experiment, or even this year’s effort on the part of Spike Jonze, Where The Wild Things Are. Anderson is more successful than Jonze and as successful as the Wachowskis, though in a different way. Here, Anderson has made a kids movie for adults…and not how they do in the Shrek movies with an adult joke or a pop reference here. Not how Jonze did by making Wild Things less a journey to Oz and more a therapy session of adult inadequacy and insecurity. Here, Anderson has made an Anderson movie, as thoroughly Anderson as The Life Aquatic, as adult as The Royal Tennenbaums, as thematic as Rushmore, but he’s packaged it for children, like Joe Cool Camel on cigarette cartons.
Here we have adults with adult problems — sacrifice, responsibility, maybe even repression and less psychological problems like mortgages. The dialogue isn’t dialed down either. Here, the cussing isn’t absent; it’s just entertainingly substituted with the word “cuss.” Example: “We’re in a real cluster-cuss,” says Mr. Fox at one point. The kids in the audience are given an in to what might otherwise be impenetrable to them in a few ways. First, these are still talking animals. Second, this is still a children’s story, although Anderson, for lack of a better word, Andersonizes it. Third, the son character, Ash, is given significant script- and screen-time because his story is most relatable to the kids (being different, growing into your own in growing up), and finally the Andersonizing can work in the kids’ favor.
Back to experiences now. The experience made possible in Fox is, in large part, due to the environment Anderson creates alongside much help from Fox Animation Studios. This is an amber and gold world, and it is warm and comfortable like fall can be when you curl up and watch the colors turn. This is a world of clay, which is a feat almost as great as nature. Fox, if it was totally flawed in almost every other aspect, is still winning purely on the technical aspects. This looks…well, fantastic. The stop-motion we see here is not a new craft — it’s been done before from Gumby to this year’s Coraline. But in Fox, it seems to be done differently, from motion to detail to the sets our characters live in. Almost every frame is a painting, and in a very literal way, it’s the meticulous work of hours and hours and days and days of time by artists, experts on their craft, sure, professionals, obviously, but artists also by the evidence on screen.
Again, like Speed Racer, I would argue Fantastic is something that has to be seen. It is singular in its presentation and also execution (as an adult/children film hybrid) which guarantees at least, as I opened, an experience.
For Anderson fans, let me assure you — this is Anderson through and through. While its tone, literally and in color — the fall reminds me of home — in a way, Anderson’s movies remind me of something big in Hollywood. Sushi. Anderson’s flicks are slick and colorful in presentation, and go down light but somehow still are filling. This comparison fails only in the sense that Anderson’s films are not raw. They are thoroughly prepared, cooked, cured, marinated, and served, but they have a depth, a fillingness that does not readily reveal itself. They settle in your stomach and you ponder them later. That’s why I imagine Fox would still be a good experience for the kiddies. It sure is a lot of fun to look at, but they might just end up having things to think about that they might not have expected, much like the adults. Anderson accomplishes this in his film through clever dialogue, through mood, through Stones songs and quiet, ponderous, or reverent moments. These are all present in Fox as in all Anderson’s other work. I guess the word I was searching for, as much as the colors of fall or the simplicity of sushi, is honest. That is something for young and old to appreciate or at least recognize.
I won’t spoil if, how much, or how Mr. Fox succeeds in his last big score. I will tell you he gets by with a little help from his friends, all giving some of my favorite performances of their careers in roles where I couldn’t even see them (Bill Murray and Mrs. Streep come to mind). But The Fantastic Mr. Fox does succeed in being an experience, worthy even of getting the Best Animated Movie of the Year Oscar (and then Up would get Best Picture). Jason Schwartzman said in an interview that Anderson has made a film “for the children in adults and the adults in children” — true. But the film also tells us it’s about survival — not just of the adult, the newsman with a mortgage, but of the wild animal, the child, that sly, charming, naturally gifted and fantastic fox.