FANTASTIC MR. FOX
animated; screenplay by Wes Anderson & Noah Baumbach, based on the book by Roald Dahl
directed by Wes Anderson
starring Viggo Mortensen, Guy Pearce, Robert Duvall, Charlize Theron
screenplay by Joe Penhall, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy
directed by John Hillcoat
by Walter Chaw There's nothing much going on in Wes Anderson's stop-motion adaptation of Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mr. Fox--which is a terrible shock, because there's generally so much going on in Anderson's and Dahl's respective canons. With Anderson's every attempt to infuse this piffle with his brand of Salinger-esque autumnal, familial melancholy registering as ever-so-slightly desperate, it strikes particularly pale in such close proximity to Spike Jonze's magnificent Where the Wild Things Are. Missing is the vein of emotionality that runs rich in Anderson's best films, the idiosyncrasies of his misfit family groups somehow rendered ordinary transplanted into foxes and opossums. I wonder if it isn't something to do with the idea that "cute" animation as a genre and not a medium has "quirk" as its bread and butter. More to the point, it probably has something to do with the fact that for all those charges of "pretentious" Anderson has collected over the course of a career, when you pile all of his pathos into a film that seems mainly interested in being adorable, they're actually deserved.
Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney) poaches one too many chickens, dooming his entire subterranean suburb to siege by a trio of murderous farmers. His wife, Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep), feels betrayed by Mr. Fox's backsliding into a life of wild animal-ism, while their son Ash (Jason Schwartzman), a bit of a runt and a lot of a social outcast, sees his father's delinquency as a chance to prove his own virility. Not helping is the appearance of Yogi-savant cousin Kristofferson (Eric Anderson), who proves graceful, popular, and adept at the same larceny so prized by his dad and dad's cohort. It's easy to see Anderson's wit at play in some of the exchanges--in Ash's steadfast commitment to his normalcy in the face of evidence to the contrary, for instance--and, eventually, it's as easy to see Anderson's play at emotion in first Ash's acceptance of his difference, then Mrs. Fox's validation, then Mr. Fox's recognition that he's perhaps not been the best father. Alas, each of the characters' foibles can ultimately be reduced to the fact that they're varieties of wild fauna, which doesn't connect the audience with the creatures so much as underscore the inconsequence of it all. Sure, Anderson's making a statement about the human animal, but he proves no Aesop and Fantastic Mr. Fox is, alas, no Animal Farm.
The picture's failure as allegory dooms it to second-tier kid's fare, but what to make of the failure of John Hillcoat's adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's apocalyptic fable The Road? Shouldn't one be moved, one asks rhetorically, by a movie about a boy and his father at the end of the world--not as daddy and baby foxes threatened with righteous taxidermy, but as soulful da and adorable moppet adrift in the ash? Alas, there's no meat to this particular Armageddon, as grizzly The Man (Viggo Mortensen) sets off across the grey wasteland, The Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) in tow, scavenging off the dry salvages in the benighted hope of finding salvation somewhere south. It's a weird thing, so obvious this year that even the Morlocks are noticing the zeitgeist, that this is the second film in as many months to feature the concept of traveling across the post-apocalypse in search of a mythical sanctuary along a coast somewhere (Zombieland)--and it's weird that both fail, admittedly for different reasons.
Throughout, Hillcoat's slavish adaptation sprinkles the odd poetic wax and random flashback to The Wife (Charlize Theron), mostly causing the movie to come off like a bit of a prick. It's Dead Poets Society, sharing with it an unbecoming appeal to praise and a crippling misunderstanding of poetry. There's a real problem when McCarthy is used in this way, highlighting what an accomplishment was the Coens' No Country for Old Men, a film that somehow captured McCarthy's Romanticism without seeming like the slow, if enthusiastic, student insensible to the undertow of the piece. Unable to project the characters' interiors in a way that its obviously expressionistic visual design appears desperate to, the film feels for all the world like a creature blind and deaf. The words, full of gravity and pregnancy, are picked up and tattered like dusty parchment caught in this directionless gale. Consider the eulogy The Man gives his wife--all offerings and cold and the finality of her last moments--and how in the film it's made almost ridiculous. Hillcoat's ability to display absolute depravity is at odds with a picture so dependent on its fugue states. What works with a masterpiece like Kiwi Andrew Dominick's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a certain tone--the same tone, as it happens, to which The Road aspires but never approaches. What's left is a scrounger's tale done better by L.Q. Jones's cult fave A Boy and his Dog thirty-some years ago, by Malick's Badlands, and, curiously, by Hillcoat himself in his occasionally Peter Weir-like The Proposition.
More, though it may be sacrilege to say so, The Road is hardly first-rank McCarthy--the weak equivocation of the film's ending is, in fact, the same weak equivocation of the book's ending, and McCarthy's declaration that this is his most personal work says more to me that he's getting old and sentimental than that it's worth much of a shit against bona fide American classics like The Crossing and Blood Meridian. What Hillcoat's picture adds is an unfortunate line suggesting that salvation has not merely followed The Boy, but worried about him, and that all of that nihilism in No Country for Old Men was the storm before the calm. The falling trees remind that there's been a lot of that lately (Where the Wild Things Are), but this film squanders it for a slack-jawed action sequence in which our boys roll around underneath tree trunks in what plays, on screen, like the stupidest proof of divinity in a movie dumb before the dull radiance of its dull faith. For what it's worth, the acting is completely adequate, a few images are resonant, and I never needed to make the connection that when The Man goes diving into the ocean to scavenge a beached tanker, we're doing a Robinson Crusoe thing. But this time Friday is a bandit whose humiliation is used to confirm The Boy's sacred piety. There's too much hope in The Road--it could be a Spielberg film (and it was: Minority Report, War of the Worlds). And unlike the better-than-the-book No Country for Old Men, it's only as good as the book. I guess I'm saying there's enough blame to go around. Originally published: November 13, 2009.