“All you really need are butt jokes,” my friend Liz offered the other day when we were talking about children’s films. Well, yes and no, because butt jokes are admittedly an easy way into a bad children’s film; but it takes much more gall and work to put together a good children’s film, and anyway, Liz’s comment was effective because it got me to thinking about the nature of children’s films in general, which leads me to Fantastic Mr. Fox, which is not a children’s film. Not really. At all.
Fantastic Mr. Fox is based on the children’s book by Roald Dahl, which should be the viewer's first hint they are about to flirt with the weird and quite possibly more-than-a-little dark. Think Matilda. Or Gene Wilder’s characterization of Willy Wonka. As the title suggests, the film’s namesake is the slightly off-kilter hero, one eccentric Mr. Fox, voiced by George Clooney. When the story begins, Mr. Fox finds out his lovely wife, Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) is pregnant. As a result of this pregnancy, Mrs. Fox finds herself in the position to bargain with her husband over his choice of profession, which immediately changes from chicken thief to that of a somewhat respectable newspaperman.
Two years (12 fox years) later, Mr. Fox is no longer happy with the simple life he has dug out. Seeking adventure, he buys a treehouse near to the farms of Boggis, Bunce, and Bean -- the meanest, maddest, baddest farmers around. Meanwhile, Mr. Fox’s nephew, Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson) moves in with the family, butting heads with the Fox’s only son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman), who is less tall, less poised, and less athletic. Hijinks really begin when Mr. Fox decides to steal from each of the nearby farmers. And then continually piss off Boggis, Bunce, and Bean. And then exacerbate the issue.
“What’s this thing you do? The whistle with the clicking sound?” asks Kylie after Mr. Fox characteristically clicks and whistles.
“What do you mean? That’s my trademark.”
If there is anything Wes Anderson understands, it is how to have a trademark. This trademark manifests itself in a clever tendency to play fanciful, to frame a world that is at times both magnanimous and small, that is complemented by a dallying soundtrack -- the type of music that makes you want to linger, like a particularly enchanting storefront display. In Fantastic Mr. Fox, the viewer will find dance scenes that are perfectly scripted and provocative and fun (compare this to the debacle of the dance scenes in the newest rendition of Alice in Wonderland -- a truly WTF moment if I’ve ever seen one). Wild creatures will devour chickens in one moment and talk affably about their good credit in the next, and, like pizza with pineapples, it will all make sense. In these ways, Fantastic Mr. Fox is fantastic in every sense of the word.
Fantastic in every sense of the word, except for the target audience, which is a slight concern. Despite certain criticism that has lauded this film as a kid’s movie that nods to heavier issues, this movie does not offer what a great family movie needs to offer. There is no correlation between adult language and childlike pranks; the lessons learned are vague or not fulfilling; honestly, there is little to invite a child to watch. The closest this film comes to a “butt” joke is Mr. Fox getting his tail shot off. And while a continuum of butt jokes is not the winning formula, forcing a child to watch a movie that’s over his or her head is not like forcing a child to eat his or her vegetables (something they will do, and maybe even be thankful for later). If kids are not invested, they’ll just shut themselves off. And as real as the fur on Mr. Fox’s tail looks, as neat as digging through dirt can be filmed, it won’t be enough for the average child. Maybe the precocious children can get on board -- hell, maybe this is who the film was intended for. All I’m saying is my Little endured 10 minutes of pithy dialogue before she asked to go for a walk and cookies.
Then again, Fantastic Mr. Fox is not directly geared toward adults, either. It’s about talking animals and kooky dance numbers, and even though a trip to the fantastical can be delightful, it’s hard to invest in the trials and tribulations of animals that, well, talk for an hour and a half. It sets the bar a little lower, which is a shame since Wes Anderson normally sets the bar too high. That being said, there’s something about the way Mr. Fox handles his wife; there’s something about the way Badger (Bill Murray) advises and hangs with his best friend; there’s something about the angst Ash feels towards his cousin Kristofferson that makes the movie worth watching in the first place. We may not want to revisit Mr. Fox and kin over and over again, but that doesn’t mean Fantastic Mr. Fox isn’t worth viewing. It might just mean it’s not worth it to own the DVD.
Most of the extras are fluff, but the segment on stop-motion animation is super intriguing. Tristan Oliver, the director of photography, explains how the sets had to be registered on a daily basis, even though they were glued and weighted down so as to avoid shifting. Watch this segment at least through the point where Oliver discusses the alcoholic cider bottles. There’s also a segment where the game of Whack-bat is explained more thoroughly, but the segment flies by and, after watching three times (I’m goofy like that), I still hadn’t fully grasped it, which is a bummer. I was also sort of irritated that the studio included “sneak peaks” at the newest chipmunks film, as well as Whip It.