Saturday, December 5, 2009

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Wes Anderson, in his ongoing quest for the perfect image, has recently ditched live-action, for the time being, and turned to Stop-Motion. In a way, this seems like his natural calling; here is a way, finally, to arrange everything so perfectly that not only are accidents not acceptable, they do not even figure in to the vocabulary of a stop-motion image. The whole point of stop-motion animation is calculation, and the masters of the form—Jan Svankmajer, The Quay Brothers, Nick Park—have used calculation to stunning, dreamlike, free-wheeling effects. Anderson is not looking for those effects, but he clearly is in reverence to stop-motion as a form. As a result his new film Fantastic Mr. Fox has some technically stunning stop-motion animation; leaves of grass, dirt, and light is shown in lovingly jerky motion whenever possible, and several scenes on a speeding motorcycle are particularly impressive. The film is also notable, if unintentionally, for inverting the clich├ęd scene of a character trashing a room in despair. Plenty of live-action films have this scene, but to this critic’s mind, nobody has ever thought to animate it.

Fantastic Mr. Fox is based on the Roald Dahl story of the same name. In it, Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney), having changed careers from stealing chickens to writing a newspaper column years ago, is compelled to buy a new home in a scenic location in a tree. But once he does, he sees that three farmers—Boggis, Bunce and Bean—have built up their farms on the surrounding hills of their’ peaceful animal kingdom and his old ways come back to him. With his son (Jason Schwartzman), a very spacey possum (Wallace Wolodarsky) and his nephew (Eric Anderson), Fox will set out to show the farmers who’s boss by stealing their chickens. But the farmers are soon on to him, and before Fox knows it, he has lost his tail, both literally and figuratively. Also, his home is being demolished, his marriage is on the rocks and all the other animals are fairly ticked off at him.

This sounds like the frilly, whimsical-drama type of material of Anderson’s other movies, and he follows through accordingly. As such, we are treated to the usual array of trademarks and quirks that the director’s fanatics find endearing and others find irritating; the constant presence of 60’s and 70’s music as if from an iTunes library put on random; the way each character dresses as if they are either a prep-school student or teacher; the way each location is treated as a tableau in which something cute will happen as opposed to a real place. Unfortunately for the non-fanatics, we will have to give Anderson a pass on these tendencies, and grant him a degree of poetic license. But something that should not be excused is the way that Anderson solicits us in to faking sympathy for his characters, something he has done time and time again. In Rushmore, Max is an arrogant, but gifted student, but it all has something to do with how his mom died when he was young, so we should feel bad for him. In The Royal Tennenbaums, Luke Wilson attempts suicide, but he’s attracted to his sister, so give the guy a break, he’s got issues. In The Life Aquatic, Bill Murray is certainly a remote hard-ass, but he abandoned his son who only just came back in to his life, so it’s a bittersweet comedy. These are reductionist characterizations that are meant to make us believe we are watching insightful human dramas, but in fact we are watching people being reduced to objects of curiosity. In Fantastic Mr. Fox, we are meant to believe that the reason Fox’s nephew, Kristofferson, is such a timid, dorky kid has something to do with how his father taught him to practice meditation, and should be tempered by the fact that his father is now ill with pneumonia. For Mr. Fox himself, his reckless attitude has something to do with always wanting people to think he is ‘fantastic,’ which is the strongest excuse Anderson and Noah Bambauch (the screenwriters) could come up with. In Anderson’s worlds, people are so unique that all we’re required to do is marvel at them rather than get to know them. In this sense, there are few major filmmakers in history who are more dishonest.

But okay. Fantastic Mr. Fox is just a film for kids. And anyway, the characters aren’t even humans this time, they’re animals. But Anderson, like all other people today working in animation, intends to give his animals a full set of human characteristics, right down to discussing mortgages and confessing pregnancies. They even exchange notes with the farmers. If animals are going to be this human, then kids won’t buy it at the end, when Mr. Fox has apparently come to some revelation and now is in the eyes of every one else, ‘fantastic.’ Kids won’t believe that he’s any more fantastic than he was at the start of the film, and they’ll be right.

Another common pitfall has befallen Wes Anderson in his search for the ideal image is: a loss of directorial common sense. He thinks he can insert close-ups wherever he wants and the effect will always be magical and he has made the nonsensical decision of giving the animal characters American voices while the human characters have British accents. Whether this was an artistic choice or an easy way of being able to work with his favorite actors—who are all American—is uncertain, but it strays too far from the original source and does not fit with the setting.

All filmmakers, to some degree, are looking for perfect images. But Anderson is more accurately trying to mold perfect images to fit his worlds, and all other aspects of storytelling—character, dialogue and location—will have to be molded as well. Anderson manages to come up with some ingenious images within the form of stop-motion, and he is still capable of genuinely clever narrative flourishes. But why, Mr. Anderson, are you concerned with making images that are the same kind of perfect? Don’t you realize what it’s done to your’ stories?