Fantastic Mr. Fox Criterion Collection Review:  It is Quote-Unquote Fantastic

Like most great directors, Wes Anderson has created a very distinctive style for his films. They live in a world that is not quite real. It’s a world filled with pastel colors and 1960s rock and roll. Where quirky characters do things that aren’t quite realistic, but neither are they unbelievable. Where every child has parental issues, and every parent is funny, adventurous, and sad. It is a world in which every scene, no matter how small or short, is filled with the tiniest of details, all distinctive to the director’s style. Wes Anderson films are like retro live-action cartoons full of zany antics and more than a bit of twee reality.

It makes perfect sense, then, that when Wes Anderson decided to adapt Roald Dahl’s children’s story Fantastic Mr. Fox he would do so in stop-motion animation. This fits perfectly into his auteur sensibilities. In a world filled with photorealistic CGI animation, of course Wes Anderson would choose to use an animation style that had its heyday in the ’60s and ’70s.

Truth be told, I was kind of growing tired of Anderson films. He hit an early peak with the nearly perfect The Royal Tennanbaums, but began to repeat himself with The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited. Those two films were fun, but added very little to what he’d done before. I was afraid he was turning into a one-trick pony losing all the promise his early films had brought.

The Fantastic Mr. Fox made me a believer again. I repent all of my sins, Mr. Anderson; you, sir, are a true artist. The movie takes what is really a pretty simple (though indeed fantastic) story from Roald Dahl, fleshes out the characters, fills in the story, and turns it into simply one of the best family films to come out in the last decade.

As one might expect from a children’s book, the story is pretty lightweight. After years of playing the straight guy, Mr. Fox (George Clooney) starts stealing from three local farmers. They retaliate and soon there is a full scale animal-versus-human war. Anderson employs his usual trope of side stories including marital trouble and sons who don’t live up to their father’s expectations to fill the movie out.

But what the film lacks in narrative it more than makes up for in delightfulness. The voice actors (including Meryl Streep, Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Willem Dafoe, and Michael Gambon) add depth, warmth, menace, and wonder to their characters. Visually, the film is absolutely stunning. Anderson, who normally fills his sets with immaculate detail really outdoes himself here. The stop-motion technique is so meticulous and time-consuming normal productions create fairly minimalist settings to lessen the work load. But Anderson and crew fill every scene with a richness of props and design. Desks have post-it notes, walls are lined with books (all with very specific titles), classrooms have beakers, bottles, and posters. The outdoor scenes are colored with snow and rivers and waterfalls. It all creates a layered, dense, incredibly beautiful film.

Oh, and it’s fun. So much fun. The jokes come naturally through the characters and the story rather than just tacked on. There isn’t a single dull moment throughout the film’s length. From the farmers sending Mr. Fox a note written in letters cut out from magazines (though he already knows who they are and they signed their name at the end) to Kylie’s eyes turning to stars when he zones out to Ash wearing a sock on his head in lieu of not having a bandit hat, seemingly every moment is filled with quirky humor and absolute wonder.

As is usual with all new Criterion releases Fantastic Mr. Fox is a dual-format package including one Blu-ray and two DVDs (one for the film, one for the extras.) The video looks practically perfect. The colors burst off the screen, and details are clear. As noted, there is a lot of detail in this film and loads of differing screen activity, but the disk captures it all with elegant clarity.

The sound likewise is really good. Voices sound warm and clear. The music is fresh and clean. The atmospheric sounds are crisp and add all sorts of interesting layers.

The packaging is a bit of a problem. There is no sleeve for the rather large booklet and so it tends to slip out when you open the case. The three disks fit into the two sides of the case. On one side is the Blu-ray while on the other are the DVDs, one with the movie, the other with the special features. It is difficult to explain properly but one disc sits above the other in a manner in which there’s a potential to cause scratches. The plastic is raised so that you have to carefully slide the disk underneath and fit it in place. I hope Criterion remedies this terrible casing soon so that all my new disks by them don’t wind up unplayable.

The disks are filled to the brim with extras. There is an introduction by Jarvis Cocker, who plays Petey (and it’s all done in the film animated style.) Wes Anderson does an informative audio commentary, which is surprisingly dry (and unprepared – he admits he hasn’t watched the film in years), but still full of lots of interesting information. You can watch the entire film via the hundreds of very specific storyboards. If you’ve never read the book (or even if you have), you can be delighted by listening to Dahl read the entire thing. Then you can watch an hours-long documentary on the celebrated author. There’s an informative and imaginative documentary on the making of the film plus set photos, publicity features, commercials, and a hilarious discussion and analysis by two kids.

Fantastic Mr. Fox has previously been released on DVD and Blu-ray but it’s absolutely worth upgrading to this Criterion disk. Once again, they have created an edition filled with the best-looking and best-sounding version of a film imaginable and stuffed it full of interesting extras.

Mat Brewster

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