Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Wes Anderson Gets a Little Wild

Now that Fantastic Mr. Fox has hit theaters, it is clear where Wes Anderson's career has been headed. His dry comedies have always been filled with characters who are somewhere between abstract caricatures and everyday people. His visual style is similar in its ironies: wholly stylized and modern – with conspicuously storyboarded shots, bold color palettes and mechanical manipulations of space – but always striving for a simple familiarity. Thus far, he has only used live action, often bearing mixed results. When these qualities are considered together, though, it becomes quite clear that Wes Anderson has been making animated films for his entire career – only he never before used animation to do so.

Mr. Fox (George Clooney) is a middle-aged newspaper columnist. He lives, humbly, in his foxhole with his pragmatic wife, Felicity (Meryl Streep) and his ill-tempered son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman). His life was not always so mundane. He once had thrilling adventures, doing what foxes do: pulling off clever heists at local farms. Under the guise of vaulting ambition, Mr. Fox decides to relocate his family to a high-class apartment in a tree – a tree that just so happens to overlook the three biggest farms in the area. With the help of his opossum building superintendent, Kylie (Wallace Wolodarsky), he begins perpetrating small heists. All of the distraction is taking a toll on his son, who only becomes more surly when his prodigy cousin, Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson) comes to stay with the family. As Mr. Fox becomes more audacious, Ash becomes more desperate for his approval and the local farmers step up their efforts to stop Mr. Fox, making things more and more dangerous for the entire animal community.

Despite the fact that this is an adaptation of a Roald Dahl story that he co-wrote with Noah Baumbach, all of the typical Wes Anderson themes are present: The father in the midst of a midlife crisis, the alienated son, the absurd predicament that brings everyone together and, of course, Bill Murray playing a badger. In fact, what may be most striking to Anderson fans is just how familiar it all feels; the story plays like any other Wes Anderson movie, despite the fact that all of the characters are now stop-motion-animated animals. Fortunately, while all of these characteristics were growing quite stale by the time The Darjeeling Limited came out in 2007, the move to animation has given them new life.

Anderson's past films worked very hard to convince us that his characters were larger than life – Steve Zissou in The Life Aquatic was a famous adventurer and documentarian; The Royal Tenenbaums was framed as a children's book – but such an effect is built directly into the medium of animation. Animated characters' appearances are inherently more simplistic than any real human's (or fox's), so it is far easier for us to view them as representative of something more than just one character. As such, much of what usually seems forced in other Wes Anderson movies works naturally in this film. This is most obvious in the film's later, more emotional scenes. Mr. Fox's behavior puts his family in danger. In a live action film, this would be difficult to forgive, but in a medium where the character can literally embody sly ambition, it is endearing.

Just as divisive as his writing, Anderson's visual style can be an acquired taste, but it can also grow rather tiresome. Thankfully, the rustic, stop-motion animation in this film allows him to create something that looks completely fresh, without compromising his trademark style. Anderson still shoots his environments as if they were a series of dioramas, only to be viewed from one, wide shot at one angle, but this is a perfect fit for a form of animation that is produced this way by its very nature. This exemplifies how this film's aesthetic can be described in a way that his previous films' cannot: organic. Tristan Oliver's cinematography even has a subtler color palette than other Anderson films do, bathing most of the film in warm oranges and browns.

Anderson and his art department do great work across the board, creating expressive characters with decidedly unique designs, as well as very believable sets. (I had never considered what a badger lawyer's office would look like before seeing this film but, while I was watching, I completely bought their take on it.) His inclination to keep production design with one foot in the Sixties also fits nicely here, as telling a story about animals on a farm benefits from a sense of timelessness. The puppets make a strong argument for the choice of animation style, since it's doubtful that any other type of animation could give the furry characters the same, tangible quality that this one does.

The animation itself is generally quite good, too, rarely distracting but never letting the audience forget what they are watching; puffs of smoke are produced with cotton balls and the fur on characters in close-up moves between each frame. Memorable moments include encounters with a deceitful rat that fights with the theatricality of a West Side Story dancer and Kristofferson's absurdly skillful first try at "whack-bat," an animal sport.

The voice cast skillfully completes the process of bringing the characters to life. Anderson did not use a recording studio to capture the performances of Clooney and company, instead taking the actors to a location similar to that of the given scene. The trick pays off, as the star-studded cast provides performances devoid of that lazy, wooden quality that is often found when actors believe they are slumming it in animation. (Willem Dafoe's cameo is a highlight.) The witty, rapid-fire dialogue is delivered with the same understatement and tight timing that much of the cast has provided in past, live action Anderson films, and scenes between Clooney and Streep are probably more genuine than anything we saw in those films.

Accordingly, my feelings as I was walking out of this film were quite genuine, as well. I have been ambivalent about Wes Anderson in the past, but Fantastic Mr. Fox is the work of a filmmaker who has finally found what works for him. All of his predilections easily made the transition into animation, finding a medium that suits them far more naturally. For the first time, he has created a film that the uninitiated can walk into and easily enjoy. It also means that, for the first time, I am looking forward to seeing what he does next.

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