This fall, we've seen two very different takes on beloved children's books: Spike Jonze's polarizing take on Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are ( rating: 40), and now Wes Anderson's predictably quirky version of Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mr. Fox. It's quite possible that the movies would have turned out better if the directors switched, as Wes Anderson might be better suited to Sendak's fantastical humanism while Jonze is probably a better fit for Dahl's funny, supernatural misanthropy. But we're left with the movies we've got, and the winner is clear: Mr. Fox by a mile.
Fantastic Mr. Fox the film is about realizing that you can't run from who you are. Mr. Fox is a reformed former chicken thief who has become a respectable newspaper columnist with a wife and kid. But he longs for adventure, and buys a treehouse near three farms so he can secretly restart his life of crime. The farmers soon band together to try to kill him, driving him and his family and all of their friends deep underground. He has the last laugh, however, admitting that he's always been a master thief, and finally wins back the family he disappointed while outwitting all the evil farmers.
Like Where the Wild Things Are, the movie has an uneven tone thanks to its adapters and intended audience: the movies were co-written by Dave Eggers and Noah Baumbach, two writers whose characters tend to be emotionally immature adults who mainly communicate through aggression. This is par for the course for an indie movie, but not so much for a children's book. The tonal dissonance is even audible in the voice casting: the bad guys are played by British actors, led by Michael Gambon as a gleeful, cartoonish villain, while the good guys are played by American stars like George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, and Bill Murray, in a much more downbeat, realist style. The contrast is mildly jarring, as though Snidely Whiplash wandered into Waking Life (rating: 55). Frankly, the Brits sound like Roald Dahl characters, while the Americans sound like Wes Anderson characters. Gambon's by far the best part of the movie, and his monomania about killing Mr. Fox is the part that feels most Dahlian.
As is Wes Anderson's wont, the film is incredibly talky. The animation is somewhat crude, and Anderson's never been much of one for action setpieces anyway, so much of the film consists of people standing and talking to one another, followed by frequent quick cuts to advance the action. The few moments of action -- Mr. Fox's fantastic thefts -- are often shown as montages rather than full scenes. So it's both plot-heavy and dialogue-heavy, while Anderson's previous films were always the latter, rarely the former. But it's unmistakeably his. The dry sense of humor punctuated by rhythmic edits, the perfect center-framing of each shot, the voices of Murray and Schwartzman, the Rolling Stones and Beach Boys on the soundtrack, even the tweed jacket that Mr. Fox wears, all mark the film as his. (One of the film's tropes is to have the characters speak in surprisingly salty language, but to replace each four-letter word with the word "cuss," a word substitution reminiscent of Diablo Cody.) The more it sounds like Wes Anderson, the less it sounds like Roald Dahl.
Of course, Dahl hasn't always translated on film. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has been adapted twice, and neither version fully captured Dahl's tone. Nicolas Roeg's fantastic adaptation of The Witches (rating: 90) got Dahl's nasty streak right, though it tacked on a happy ending. So the tonal hedges in Mr. Fox are in a long tradition. Still, it's a shame. The movie's funniest when it sounds most like Dahl -- typically, when Gambon's character is around. It's fast-paced, agreeably brief, easily watchable, and never grating, but rarely great. Still, it's good, and that's not something to take for granted when it comes to children's movies.
Crossposted on Remingtonstein.