Fantastic Mr Fox is some kind of miracle: a children’s movie that might just be the most grown-up picture of the year. It’s also a remarkable collaboration between two distinctive artists, Wes Anderson and Roald Dahl, that doesn’t compromise either of them; despite being his first adaptation this is as much an Anderson movie as Rushmore or The Darjeeling Limited, with which it shares many of its themes.
The central premise is a simple one. Mr Fox likes stealing chickens. He knows that this is dangerous — as a young fox he and his wife were almost killed in one fatal raid — but it’s part of his nature and it makes him feel alive. But when his most ambitious raid goes wrong he and his family become targets, as three vicious local farmers, Boggis Bunce and Bean, vow revenge. As the farmers’ plots become ever more elaborate, and not just the Fox family but their neighbours come under threat, can Mr Fox save his family, and at what price to their community?
All of this is beautifully executed in stop motion animation, lovingly hand crafted. The world of the film is lush and stylised, blending elements of the English countryside with touches of the American West: as well as moles and badgers there are beavers, gophers and a single, terrifying wolf. Many of the details — clothes, furniture and props — are from Dahl’s own life: the book was his most autobiographical novel, and Anderson and his co-writer Noah Baumbach lived in Dahl’s own house while writing the script. It’s also very funny, blending Anderson’s wry humour with elements of slapstick — there’s a motorcycle chase that Nick Park could be proud of.
But what makes Mr Fox so stunning is its family. The plot of the movie is the hanger, but the family is the clothes. This is as funny, poignant and observant a depiction of a family as anything we’ve seen this year. It’s a portrait of a marriage under pressure, as Mr Fox’s exploits put the family at risk; and, in the film’s main subplot, its a story about children, and the subtle status shifts and jealousies they face. The Fox family have one son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman), who is shy, hesitant, bookish: in his own word, different. At the beginning of the movie they are joined by his cousin Kristofferson, who is everything that Ash is not: confident, athletic, comfortable in his skin. And as Ash realises immediately, he’s the son that Mr Fox would have wanted, with some of his own cocky swagger, insouciance (he’s played by George Clooney) and style.
This is the heart of the story. There’s a moment, early on, as Mr Fox watches the two boys competing at diving and casually compliments Kristofferson while lightly mocking his own son, where you see how easily children are damaged – not by deliberate cruelty, but by not quite thinking hard enough – and how Mr Fox’s narcissism puts his family at risk. It’s pitch perfect writing and directing, and suggests that Anderson picked the perfect collaborator in Baumbach, the writer-director of The Squid and the Whale.
He could also have hardly chosen a better cast: not just Clooney and Schwartzman, but Meryl Streep, Michael Gambon and Anderson regulars Owen Wilson and Bill Murray, as Mr Fox’s badger lawyer. Together these diverse collaborators have created a timeless, endlessly rewatchable movie that expands and deepens Dahl’s story while remaining true to its fantastic, foxy heart.