Wes Anderson, at his best and his worst, has always been a filmmaker with a fondness for hermetically sealed worlds of his own creation. Why it took him 15 years to take a stab at animation, I'll never know.
Of course, Fantastic Mr. Fox isn't Anderson's first flirtation with stop-motion, if you'll recall the Henry Selick-created undersea sequences in the charming The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Anderson clearly understood the power of fanciful imagery in that case, but at times his live-action films haven't found a real-world anchor for his oddball characters. Fantastic Mr. Fox somehow manages the opposite trick: With wonderful playfulness, Anderson gives a completely manufactured world both heart and genuine humanity.
In theory Anderson and co-scripter Noah Baumbach are adapting a lesser-known Roald Dahl story about a fox (George Clooney) who finds himself the target of the three farmers from whom he steals his meals. But there's considerably more backstory to Mr. Fox in this version. Convinced by his wife (Meryl Streep) to give up poultry-filching and settle down into family life, Mr. Fox has become that most neutered of God's creatures, a newspaper columnist. But when he spots the farms of Boggis, Bunce and Bean from the window of the family's treetop house, he plans a few furtive trips for the purpose of livestock acquisition - a choice that has consequences when the three farmers declare war on the thieving fox.
Anderson's films have generally dealt with the love-hate tug-of-war of family relations, and while he tones down the "hate" part of the equation for all-ages audience consumption, he's still dealing with recognizably human dysfunction. The Foxes' adolescent son Ash (Jason Schwartzman) is a sullen kid with deep jealousies and a fondness for wearing a cape. Mr. Fox finds himself almost as incapable of addressing his son's dissatisfactions as he is of addressing his own.
Anderson and Baumbach find laughs in the deadpan juxtaposition of their content with the genre in which they're working. The young animals' overly complicated schoolyard game of "whack-bat" - think cricket as played with a flaming pine cone - proves just as absurd in action as it seems from a diagrammed description. The occasional random shift of the characters' behavior from domesticated to completely animalistic - the frantic devouring of a breakfast, or an argument turned into an exchange of snarls - works both as a gag and a reinforcement of the story's notion of not pretending to be what we aren't. And few concepts this movie year are as inspired as Anderson and Baumbach's decision to substitute the word "cuss" anywhere an adult-oriented film might have included an actual profanity (e.g., "a real cluster-cuss").
The script is terrifically entertaining, but Anderson's also savvy enough to identify exactly how to use stop motion to make the story even more appealing than it might have been with another form of animation. Something about these critters proves a perfect match for Anderson's sensibility, like the sudden change of characters' eyes to big x's when they're rendered unconscious. The action sequences - from the Foxes' acrobatic first farmhouse break-in, to their counterattack on the farmers' siege, to Mr. Fox's showdown with a dirty rat (Willem Dafoe) rendered in freeze-frame tableaux - have a goofy kineticism unique to this style. The herky-jerky movements may be more reminiscent of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer than Coraline, but in Fantastic Mr. Fox the throwback vibe is almost irresistibly charming.
The most satisfying thing of all about the film, though, may be how surprisingly accessible it makes a director who has previously seemed like such a specific, acquired taste. Perhaps because he trusts the animated figures to provide all the funkiness that was required, Anderson devotes his energies as a writer and director to creating characters - wonderfully voice-performed all around - whose quirks feel unforced. Sure, it's only a minor thematic variation on the "be true to yourself" premise that anchors 90% of all 21st-century kid-flicks, but Anderson brings it to life in a completely unique way.
Welcome to the world of feature animation, Wes. What took you so long?