Wednesday, 3 March 2010
Fantastic Mr. Fox
2. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
Dir: Wes Anderson
Like so many people my age, I grew up loving the books of Roald Dahl. Dahl had an unrivaled ability to tap into the mindset of children and his stories opened up incredible worlds of imagination. Given the phenomenal inventiveness of these texts ('The Twits' remains one of the funniest books ever written), Dahl ought to have been ideally suited to film adaptations. Although filmmakers could hardly hope to rival the thrilling images Dahl's writing conjured in the minds of countless youngsters (or the superbly anarchic illustrations of Quentin Blake, which I will always associate most with Dahl's work), you'd think this great materiel would have resulted in at least one truly noteworthy big screen version. Yet somehow Dahl's work has never translated particularly well to celluloid. Films based on Dahl's work have usually fallen way short of the mark and in some cases were simply dreadful (Tim Burton's 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)). Even the more celebrated efforts such as 'Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory' (1971) (for which Dahl wrote the screenplay himself) and Nicolas Roeg's 'The Witches (1990) failed to satisfy because of a misjudged tendency to sweeten some of the edgier moments in the source materiel. Indeed, Dahl himself apparently so detested the tacked on happy ending to 'The Witches' that he protested outside cinemas, encouraging the public not to see this compromised version of his original vision.
Decades of Dahl's work being mishandled has eroded any interest I might have had in forthcoming movies based on his work. But recently news of a new Dahl film caught my attention and, though I had significant doubts about the project, the news that Wes Anderson was to write and direct the film made it irresistible to me. Anderson has been one of the most unusual and consistently brilliant directors of recent times. His distinctive sense of humour, deadpan style and excellent repertory cast (including such talents as Bill Murray, Owen Wilson and Jason Schwartzman) have resulted in an as yet unsoiled catalogue of astonishing films. It's almost impossible to pick a favourite from the likes of 'Rushmore' (1998), 'The Royal Tennenbaums' (2001) and 'The Darjeeling Limited' (2007).
Given my love of both Dahl and Anderson, the stakes were high as I walked into the cinema to watch 'Fantastic Mr. Fox'. I dreaded the thought of Anderson ruining his uninterrupted run of gems and neither was I particularly thrilled at the prospect of seeing another Dahl story have all the lovability drained out of it. And yet I couldn't quite imagine how these two very different visionaries could fit together and create something worthy of either of them. It took about 20 minutes for me to realise how Anderson had got around the problems of making a successful Roald Dahl film: he hadn't made a Roald Dahl film at all. He'd taken the excellent source materiel as a starting point and then proceeded to mould it into something instantly recognisable as a Wes Anderson film.
Dahl purists may be irked by this prospect. After all, Dahl's stories bear the stamp of their author so prominently that the idea of replacing his stamp with that of another may sound like heresy. Yet Anderson's own trademark style is not dissimilar to Dahl's, even if it's a comparison no-one thought to make until the arrival of 'Fantastic Mr. Fox'. Both are subversively hilarious, both are able to mix the obvious with the subtle to devastating effect and both avoid sentimentality in favour of a more satisfying emotional depth. So, having taken Dahl's excellent story as a starting point, Anderson simply does what he does best by injecting his own personal brand of brilliance into the film. The result is not only the first totally successful Dahl adaptation but yet another rival for the prize of Wes Anderson's best film.
Anderson has added a few well-judged extra plot points and characters to flesh out the story but he maintains the quirky feel of Dahl's book by opting to tell his story with traditional stop motion animation. The animal puppets are impressive, slightly grotesque creations, eschewing cutesiness for a more realistic look which is offset by the humanising clothes they wear and the fact that they walk around on their hind legs. The sets are all magnificent and the whole film has a gorgeous, Autumnal look. The voice cast is headed up by George Clooney and Meryl Streep, both great in their roles as Mr. and Mrs. Fox, and also features Anderson regulars Schwartzman, Murray and Wilson. The cast, particularly Clooney and Schwartzman, all give beautifully understated performances as they rattle off Anderson's hysterically funny dialogue. Anderson also takes a gamble by opting to include another of his trademarks, an impeccably chosen soundtrack of classic pop music. The thought of 'Fantastic Mr. Fox' set to the sounds of The Beach Boys' 'Heroes and Villains' or The Rolling Stones 'Street Fightin' Man' may sound ludicrous on paper but the gamble pays off and it works brilliantly. Again, this is due to the fact that 'Fantastic Mr. Fox' is far more a Wes Anderson film than it is a Roald Dahl one and in a Wes Anderson film we expect the great music to be present.
While it looks and sounds terrific, it is probably 'Fantastic Mr. Fox's' script that makes it most remarkable. This is dialogue the like of which we've not come across in a children's film before. Indeed, 'Fantastic Mr. Fox' is not a children's film at all. It is tailored much more towards an adult sensibility. There are one or two big laughs for the kids but overall the humour comes largely from character traits and exquisitely hilarious turns of phrase which are funny for no discernible reason. Anderson's target audience is made explicit by one of 'Fantastic Mr. Fox's' strangest quirks. It seems that the script has been written to include swearing but that Anderson has then gone back and replaced these expletives with the word "cuss". So at one point we hear Clooney's Mr. Fox refer to the situation being "one big clustercuss" for everyone! Little flourishes like this make it clear that 'Fantastic Mr. Fox' is more than just the latest in a line of sickly-sweet children's films starring talking animals.
It takes a truly incredible film to win my vote for best animated film of the year in the same year that Pixar released the masterful 'Up' (2009). And yet, with its beautiful visuals and exceptional script, 'Fantastic Mr. Fox' has not just done that but has managed to vie for the title of best film of any kind for that particular year. It's a subtle, hilarious, expertly judged and infinitely rewatchable piece of work that I will return to again and again. Finally, Anderson has given us a Dahl adaptation to treasure.