Charm, tenderness and wit have been the hallmarks of Wes Anderson’s style since the arrival of his first film, Bottle Rocket (1996). With The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), Anderson brought his quirky sensibility to a bigger audience, pushing the envelope with outlandish flourishes that were somehow tethered to relatable stories. Yet, the line between smart and smarmy eluded the director in recent years, with The Darjeeling Limited (2007) feeling like a vibrant, well-crafted ode to self-indulgence.
It’s a wonderful surprise, then, that Anderson may have discovered his greatest metier with his latest opus, Fantastic Mr. Fox. Based on Roald Dahl’s children's book, the animated film depicts the perilous adventure of Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney) and his family when three evil, local farmers team up to destroy him. The film opens with the mundane: Mr. Fox writes for the local paper wants a bigger home, Mrs. Fox (voiced by Meryl Streep) makes breakfast and paints for fun, and their adorable son, Ash (voiced by Jason Schwartzman), is a rambunctious, ornery oddball who insists on wearing a cape to school. Joining them is their meditation-prone cousin Kristofferson (voiced by Eric Anderson), who stays with the Foxes while his dad is ill, as well as Kylie (voiced by Wally Wolodarksy), the well-meaning, dense opossum who becomes Mr. Fox’s closest ally.
Soon enough, the family’s idyllic life is threatened in the face of the nasty farmers’s wrath. As their local habitat is destroyed, it’s not just the Foxes whose lives are at stake, but those of all their neighbors. Their survival depends on Mr. Fox and, of course, loopholes of human ineptitude. While the animal-vs.-man structure is familiar stuff, the film is an original, touching and humorous feat of filmmaking, in which creating a make-believe world freed Anderson to tackle real-life subjects with a comfort he left behind in Darjeeling’s dust: Ash’s little fox pain is palpable as his cousin outshines him in every endeavor, from sports to women to spiritual enlightenment. Similarly, Mr. Fox’s domestic indiscretion creates a deep rift that’s relatable to any couple in the animal kingdom.
Plus, all the animals are really cute! As a film-goer not typically enchanted by furry creatures -- cartoon or otherwise -- the puppets and their occasional nods to people (apparently, good credit matters for non-humans, too), Fantastic Mr. Fox is irreverent and self-aware, minus pretention. Wink-wink asides and cameos further enhance the film, such as Mario Batali voicing a rabbit-chef and rock darling Jarvis Cocker voicing a puppet version of himself, complete with massive glasses and a banjo.
With this latest work, Wes Anderson has come into his own in a way that matches Tenenbaums’s vision and discipline, but reflects a new mood for a different era. Far from the overwhelming loss and self-doubt that have afflicted characters in past productions, Anderson’s take on the astute little foxes lets us reflect on our own disappointments and worries, but with a warm-hearted, self-deprecating assurance that, eventually, good guys can get justice, above ground and below.