Friday, November 27, 2009
Fantastic Mr. Fox
Before we get this bitch-fest started, let me be clear on one matter: Fantastic Mr. Fox is undoubtedly one of the loveliest films you will find playing in the multiplex during this grim season of gloomy Oscar-bait and gaudy holiday cash-ins. Wes Anderson, ever the playful stylist, has created an overstuffed toy box here, brimming with curious inventions and childish wonders. It’s hard not to succumb to the tactile delights of such first-rate stop-motion animation as you watch the fur on Mr. Fox’s face bristle, seemingly nudged by some modest breeze. Anderson’s characteristically flat images have rarely conveyed such a sense of abundance—a fair trade for visual depth, I suppose—and little jokes and details suggest a care and craft that exceeds the vast majority of animated films. Even the vivid autumnal colouring of the film is a satisfying pleasure in itself. (Such a rich confluence of reds, oranges, and browns probably hasn’t been seen on screens since She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.)
But even as I admired these exquisitely composed and executed visuals, I was unable to give myself over to the film’s enchantments. While certainly a step above the usual pop-culture-quoting crassness of most children’s animation these days, the film still indulges in self-conscious gestures that continually break the spell and undermine attempts to build up an enveloping world. Annoying meta-conversations about Mr. Fox’s trademark whistle—itself a fairly irritating flourish—take the viewer out of the story and into a realm of self-commentary the film has no real interest in pursuing. Similarly, the gesture of showing Mr. Fox turning on the little radio on his belt as a cue for the soundtrack is another unfortunate incident of the film giving into self-awareness. Besides, how distracting is it to hear the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man” in a rural fable?
Equally disruptive, as Deborah Ross points out in this review, is the use of celebrity voices—a charge I would love to see leveled against more of these star-studded animated films. You can really feel how damaging this tactic can be every time the fox family got together—all I could see were the faces of George Clooney and Meryl Streep and Jason Schwartzman in front of a bunch of microphones somewhere. Even though the performances are fairly satisfying, the celebrity wattage proves detrimental to creating fully realized characters. It was really only characters voiced by unfamiliar names—Eric Anderson’s Kristofferson, Wally Wolodarsky’s Kylie—that truly seemed to belong to the world of the film. By contrast, Clooney's Mr. Fox seemed to hover somewhere just outside this carefully constructed reality.
However, the most significant problem with Fantastic Mr. Fox lies in the script itself—another typical Anderson concoction of neurotic sons craving validation and reckless fathers struggling with responsibility. Once again, we are forced to confront the problem of Wes Anderson himself, a surely talented filmmaker who routinely frustrates and disappoints.
Now, I don’t want to criticize Anderson just for returning to these familiar characters and plots again and again. The family tensions he addresses are timeless, and in theory there is nothing wrong with returning to the same theme if you can justify it. Most great subjects not only reward repeated examination, but in fact demand it. Consider Yasujiro Ozu, who made the family his great theme. His Late Spring follows a woman struggling with the dilemma of marrying and abandoning her aging, lonely father. Later, in An Autumn Afternoon, Ozu essentially retells this story, shifting the emphasis to the father's perspective. Both films are extremely similar in terms of plot, but each one takes on a very different mood—the daughter’s version being more hopeful, the father’s more melancholy.
No one would accuse Ozu of being a weak filmmaker just because he rarely strayed from this terrain, and yet Anderson’s recurring familial obsessions feel like a weakness, not a sign of a singular, brilliant vision. He simply doesn’t bring enough insight to his repetitions. While an artist like Ozu could bring out new depths in stories that are essentially the same, Anderson has resorted to hiding his unimaginative tales behind surface distractions (first an aquatic adventure, then an Indian excursion, now a foxy fable). Why not, for example, try telling one of his neurotic family tales from the perspective of one of his mother figures, and reinvigorate his usual father-son conflicts? Because the mother is always relegated to the background, or altogether absent, leaving us with the same sons and fathers playing out the same dramas.
So all we have here is a visually rich and thematically poor film, and it seems like a damn shame. In Anderson’s world, there isn’t a family conflict that can’t be resolved by simply having everyone break out into dance as the camera pulls back and the film ends (this abused flourish feeling increasingly like a retreat from all the problems Anderson can't address). The cracks in the script are plastered over with a lot of sentimental goop about respecting differences and acknowledging our own animal natures, which sounds lovely except that’s what the problem was in the first place. Fantastic Mr. Fox is at best like a pleasant walk on an autumn afternoon—you see some pretty colours and nice sights, and then end up back where you began, a little rosy cheeked perhaps but otherwise unaffected.