Fantastic Mr. Fox: Wes Anderson and the Capers of Middle Age

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In one of the earlier scenes in Wes Anderson's latest contribution to the hipster zeitgeist Mr. Fox (George Clooney), having decided to relocate from a hole in the ground to a tree, is asked by Mrs. Fox if he stills feels poor. "Less so," he muses, lounging under the boughs of his dream home.

Despite his move up in the world of small mammalian dwellings, he remains unfulfilled, melancholically contemplating his increasing age (helpfully translated into both human and fox years). The something missing, he eventually realizes, is the thrill of stealing chickens, the career he laid down years ago to become a stable father and husband. Fox embarks on a master plan to outwit farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean with his loyal if slightly unbalanced sidekick, an opossum named Kylie (Wally Wolodarsky).

Hijinks ensue as the pair loots their way through the three farms only to incur the wrath of the three farmers, leading to a siege and inevitable showdown that drive the bulk of the film's action. The madcap chase scenes, frantic foxhole digging, cross-sectioned escape routes and animal gags (Mr. Fox delivers eloquent monologues, only to attack his buttered toast with animalistic ferocity) are the best type of slapstick, and whisk along at a giddy but not nauseating pace. The film is zany but also witty, incorporating Anderson's signature deadpan and winking references (that hare braising chickens in the kitchen is voiced by none other than celebrity chef Mario Batali, for example).

As in Mr. Anderson's earlier films, the tension between reality and fantasy, desire and responsibility loom large in this film, with Mr. Fox, a charmingly matted and googly-eyed figurine, questioning his innate nature. "The truth about me is, I'm a wild animal," he tells his wife, explaining his willingness to lie about his chicken pilfering and endanger his family and friends. This theme is returned to time and time again as his angry son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman) struggles against his lot as an un-athletic, pint-sized outsider competing with his larger-than-life father and golden boy cousin, Kristofferson (Eric Anderson).
Anderson, however, is not content to let foxes be foxes. Mr. Fox alternates between his devil-may-care persona and role as paterfamilias. Mr. Fox is free to announce his inner wild animal, but Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) is quick to shoot back, "I don't care what the truth about you is." What Mrs. Fox wants is to get out of the trap (literally) that her husband has led them into.

Mr. Anderson's fastidious stop-motion animation lends an air of nostalgia to the film, as the quirky figurines lurch through a fantastical world of typewriters, silos and Seventies-era suits. Anderson's aesthetic, while sometimes criticized as a reflection of the fetishization of objects and consumerism that plagues the post-Boomer generations, seems to be grasping here for a vision of childhood that has little in common with the technically-savvy animation dynamos of late, from Wall-E to Up. The creaky, jerking figurines dance awkwardly across the screen, but the emotions that dance across their faces are far less stilted. "I like to do things that are surrealistic, but with characters who are real. So that, even if things are a little unusual, the emotions will come through anyway," Anderson told the New Yorker in a recent profile. His foxes, badgers and hares may not take part in the hyperreality of CGI, but their relationships with one another are real enough.

Those relationships are built on navigating the turbulent waters of maturity and responsibility, which inevitably draw the mind towards Spike Jonze's preadolescent opus Where The Wild Things Are. Both movies have sparked debate over what is and is not a children's movie, but both films seem designed less to appeal to a particular age demographic and more to a particular sensibility. The childhood of both films is filled with whimsy and wonder, the reckless adventuring no longer freely associated with what might be more aptly known as pre-adulthood. But it also recognizes the longing of children to grow up, the willingness to shed a certain amount of entitlement and freedom for the firm bonds of social attachment. Inside each of us may be a wild thing, or a wild animal, but there is also a future wife, father, or caretaker, learning to take the burdens of a complicated life. Mr. Fox's fantastic appeal lies not with an adult's inner child, but a child's inner adult.