In his last two films, The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited, Wes Anderson swung far too close to the twin weaknesses of his films-- Aquatic felt so mannered and fussy as to barely be real at all, while Darjeeling got wrapped up in its trio of lead characters to the point that it failed to notice the entire country of India surrounding them.
Don't ask how, but somehow it required puppets for Anderson to finally get the balance right again. Fantastic Mr. Fox is Anderson's best film since The Royal Tenenbaums, and perhaps his funniest ever. Adapted from Roald Dahl's children's book with a healthy dash of Anderson's own quirks and taste, the movie is crowded with humor and good cheer, translating Anderson's typical themes-- complicated family relationships, envy and disappointment-- into a romp that's a delight without seeming simple or naive. After meticulously art directing his live-action films for years, Anderson finally has a perfectly precise sandbox in which to play, and he knows exactly what to do with it.
In both appearance and voice, Mr. Fox is George Clooney boiled down to his most cavalier, whiskey-voiced essence, a former raider of chicken coops who has finally opted for the simple life, settling down in an underground burrow with his wife Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) and his misfit son Ash (Jason Schwartzman). But much as Royal Tenenbaum and Steve Zissou couldn't leave well enough alone, Mr. Fox isn't quite satisfied; a move into a comfy treehouse provides him a direct view of the three biggest chicken farms in the area, and it's not long before Mr. Fox and his trusty possum sidekick Kylie (Wally Wolodarsky) are donning their bandit hats and raiding the henhouses yet again.
The three farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean-- one fat, one short, one lean, as the song goes-- are furious to find that Mr. Fox has outsmarted them again, and force the Fox family, plus the other animals in the area, to burrow underground as the farmers attempt to dig up the culprit. It's an inconvenient time, given that Mrs. Fox is furious at her husband for resuming his thieving ways, and Ash is steaming with envy at his visiting cousin Kristofferson (Eric Anderson), who has all the social and athletic skills that Ash wants more than anything. Anderson fans won't be surprised when they see the unlikely family unit cooped up together and squabbling, but with the farmer mayhem going on above ground and so many tricks and schemes to execute amongst the animals, it's amazing how much fun it all still is.
For a movie that starts out so crazily plotted and energetic, Mr. Fox does flag a bit once the animals have dug into their underground city and the farmers are essentially waiting for Fox's next move. But it's not just the densely packed frames, something funny or important stuffed into every corner and inventive filmmaking taking place in every scene, that will keep viewers of all ages interested. Anderson takes Dahl's gift for names and jokes and turns it into a whole new kind of absurdism, in which all possible swear words are replaced with "cuss" and Ash constantly insists, to no one in particular, that he truly wants to be considered an athlete. The voice cast, which also includes Bill Murray and a wonderfully laconic Willem Dafoe as a treacherous rat, is fully invested; whether or not it's due to Anderson's gambit of having them all together acting out the scene, the actors jive perfectly with the movie's deadpan silly style.
The herky-jerky animation, in which fox fur bristles for no reason and movements all seem a little stilted, takes some getting used to, but eventually serves to create an enchanting kind of world all its own. Anderson and his animators have fun with it too, using impossible geography in chase scenes and animating amorphous things like smoke and water in a way that teases the boundary of realism. Each scene is a different kind of visual delight, and the more finicky aspects of Anderson's style, like natty corduroy suits or dead-center framing, feel utterly at home in Mr. Fox's world.
Even though it tackles some of the themes of loneliness and resentment that categorized many of Anderson's earlier films, Fantastic Mr. Fox is in every way a children's movie, the kind that actually respects a younger audience's ability to understand nuance while fully embracing a wild silliness that seems to come directly from Anderson's inner child, a creature I might have previously doubted could possibly exist. 11 years after Max Fischer built his aquarium, Anderson has once again figured out how to have fun and, this time, let us in on the adventure.