Roald Dahl is a remarkable writer, responsible for spellbinding me as a child with stories like Fantastic Mr. Fox and my favorite of just about any children's tale, The Witches. Beyond children's literature, he also had a witty talent at crime and mystery stories too, and I think its this side of his tastes that might have been delighted to see Wes Anderson give a more mature yet irreverent vision of Fantastic Mr. Fox. Not to say that there is a sinister side to the movie, but a clear wink-and-nod to the parents who watch this movie with their kids. Just subtle stuff like Mr. Fox's disarming smile that looks more apt on a hungry jackal, or the Rat (Willem Dafoe) and his demeaning comments to Mr. Fox about his wife's youthful reputation. A kid might not catch on, but it's seasoning for the grown-ups.
The book only weighed in around sixty pages or so, which is pretty light source material when you're looking to create a ninety minutes feature film. More has been done with less, however, and with mixed results in the past--Where the Wild Things Are struck a good chord, while How the Grinch Stole Christmas felt more like an abomination than any Jim Carrey film in memory. The story is clearly aimed at young children with its pace and tone. It's funny, with just enough action and suspense to make it a fun story of a fox overcoming adversity to provide for his family and friends.
While there is all that in the movie, there is an even greater focus on Mr. Fox's longing to regain his wildness. As if he were a fox in a mid-life crisis. The movie starts at a moment in time before Dahl's book, with Mr. and Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) stealing chickens like a vulpine Bonnie & Clyde. But they're domesticated upon learning they're going to have a child.
And their kid (Jason Schwartzman) added an entirely new angle to the story I don't remember at all being explored in the children's book. He's disgruntled about his size and inability to live up to the immense athletic reputation of his father, and really starts to brood and lash out when his cousin comes to stay for a while and is shown up even more both at home and in the schoolyard. It turns the story into a real family film as each member of the Fox family is explored to its fullest extent, and the interplay between the characters feels both genuine and charming.
Winner: The Movie. While there is still a nostalgic charm to the children's tale, which I read again over Christmas this year while the movie was in theaters, I was simply won over by the film once I saw it. The stop-motion animation is stylized in such a way that it's like watching furry stick figures set to music during action scenes, and remarkably organic textures to the figures during the more intimate and down-tempo scenes. It's eye candy in every sense of the term, though I suspect some people disliked the movie because of the stop-motion animation. To those people I say, I pity you.