Tuesday, December 1, 2009
Wes Anderson is one of a handful of interesting, unique directors working in America today whose work is marginalized by that most useless of criticisms: that he is a "style over substance" filmmaker. I don't know when bringing something visual to the most visually stimulating of all media became something worthy of derision but, while sometimes the phrase is used appropriately, those who casually toss it out at any film that dares look interesting should be forced to sit through a Dogme 95 marathon so they can appreciate what aesthetic means to a film's enjoyment and how fucking terrible movies are without it. Having said that, I'm far from the world's biggest Wes Anderson fan, having previously loved on The Royal Tenenbaums and found the rest of his oeuvre, even Rushmore, to be excellent in places and spotty in others. His last two features, the soulless Life Aquatic and the on-the-nose Darjeeling Limited, were neither outright bad, but for all of Life Aquatic's insanity and Darjeeling's back-to-basics vibrancy, I found little in either worth remembering; neither was an exercise in style over substance, but the substance communicated through their styles held no interest for me.
It is with some trepidation, then, that I admit how much I enjoyed his latest work, Fantastic Mr. Fox, as it might seem that I'm choosing a simple kid's film over his more complex works. Well, yes, this is a kid's film, as straightforward as entries in the genre must be, but it also delves into the key theme of Anderson's corpus: a dysfunctional, emotionally distant family and the extent its members will go to for each other. He does not so much gut Roald Dahl's story as stuff every crevice with his own sensibilities, stretching Dahl's whimsical story into a post-ironic bit of family fun, appealing to your 5-year-old and your embittered hipster teenager.
His Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney) is an egotistical chicken thief, so full of himself that he even acknowledges it at one point. His wife Felicity (Meryl Streep), forces him to give up his trade when the two narrowly escape death in one engagement and she reveals her pregnancy. 12 fox-years later, Mr. Fox writes opinion columns for the local paper that no one reads and has an uneasy relationship with his son Ash (Jason Schwartzman), a barely held-together wad of fur and rage. Fox hates his gray flannel suit existence and longs for the fire of his youth, so he moves his family out of the ground and into a tree, ostensibly for the freedom of sunshine but in reality for the new home's proximity to three farms owned by Boggis, Bunce and Bean and their irresistible products within.
The world that Anderson and his animators created for Mr. Fox and the other characters to roam has a pop-up book quality, evidently something artificial yet something you want to reach out and feel anyway. When the camera moves, it typically does so sideways, moving through rooms and layers in the inventive underground world of the animals as if scanning the panels of a comic book. Each of these areas, and the characters who inhabit them, bursts with Anderson's visual acumen: overwhelmingly bright colors, right-angle arrangements, symmetry. Anderson is a director both praised and criticized for his meticulous compositions, so what better medium for him to explore than stop-motion animation, the most involving method of building and photographing a world from scratch?
I'm tip-toeing around discussing the film as, pound for pound, this is the funniest picture in Anderson's canon. It's always tricky when a filmmaker or actor moves from working primarily in the R-rated field to children's entertainment -- how cringeworthy it is when the subject of "making the kids proud of me" raises its serpentine head in interviews -- but Anderson tackles the shift with extra cheek; how many PG films (PG only because some of the characters, as they must in an Anderson movie, smoke) not only broach the subject of existentialism but say the word aloud? The director also replaces every possible swear word with the word "cuss," and I suspect that he wrote the script without children in mind and censored himself later, because the word is bandied about quite often, including as a part of combinations such as "clustercuss." I'd like to see this method used on TV instead of the annoying and useless bleeping that grates the ears.
The Darjeeling Limited had its moments of character insight, but Fantastic Mr. Fox gets Anderson back on firm emotional ground. Mr. Fox's ennui is deeply felt (and his comments on the non-readership of his column is a subtle commentary, perhaps, on our own failing papers), and the caustic relationship between Ash, who projects his insecurities and self-loathing outward, and essentially everyone else is as revealing of his inner concerns as it is blisteringly funny. His exchanges with cousin Kristofferson in particular are ripe for comedy, as Kristofferson is everything that Ash isn't: athletic, handsome and, it seems, well-liked by Mr. Fox. These meaty lead performances are bolstered by a manic cast of supporters voiced by the likes of Anderson alumni Owen Wilson and Bill Murray, all of whom find that usual balance between the goofier aspects of the directors characters and their reserved, ultra-dry style.
However, a few items stuck in my craw after leaving the theater, and I still can't get over some of Anderson's choices after sleeping on my thoughts. Mr. Fox, Ash, Kristofferson, the opossum Kylie, they're all so much fun; so why are all the female characters uptight and as flat as Anderson's storybook compositions? I understand that the director is evoking a bit of a '50s suburban feel with the layouts of the animals' houses, but why did he feel the need to port over the vision of the domesticated housewife as well? Felicity knows that her husband resumed thieving upon moving near the farms, she only offers a few words of stern caution to try to stop him. When Mr. Fox places the entire community in peril by angering the farmers, Felicity only gets to run through one of those "Oh, I love you but you can be so silly sometimes!" harsh speeches that isn't so harsh. Speaking of the farmers: why are all the humans voiced by British and Irish actors when all of the animals are voiced by American ones? Yes, the composition of the farms brings to mind the English countryside where Dahl set the story, but there's no explanation for the clear difference. Perhaps it's a further distinction between animals and humans, but considering that the two groups can understand and converse with one another, it just seems like a lazy excuse for Anderson to use some actors he liked. And I don't even know what the hell Willem Dafoe thought he was doing as an evil rat who sounds as though he came from New Orleans, though I admit I liked his mix of zaniness and menace.
Nevertheless, Fantastic Mr. Fox is a terrific return to form for Anderson, lacking the depth of his best work but making up for it with his first film to allow you to sit back and enjoy the visuals without having to worry about the story's complexity whacking you in the head every five minutes. And when I said that this was as much for the kids as the indie crowd, I meant it: yes, no child will catch the extended reference to The Third Man of a sequence in sewers, and they'll likely not catch the potential nod to Toy Story in the form of a milk (or apple, as the case may be) crate prison. But they'll have as much fun with its irreverence as adults, perhaps more so -- I was turned on to Monty Python at 10 and my parents still don't see its appeal, and they grew up in the proper time period for it. Anderson's humor may be smug, but he derives laughs directly from how smug the characters are, and nobody can spot a phony and laugh at him like a child.