Wes Anderson’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is hardly the groundbreaking spectacle we’ve come to expect, as Hollywood animation studios race to push the genre to dizzying heights of digital wizardry.
The stop-motion creations here are brilliantly colorful but crude — deliberately so, I suspect, as if Anderson is rejecting the idea that storytelling need follow the lead of technology.
What he offers instead is a delightfully exhilarating comedy filled with fully realized characters and faithful, at least in spirit, to Roald Dahl’s popular children’s book.
Anderson has long professed his desire to bring “Fox” to the big screen, and his determination is evident in the strength of his narrative.
Rather than indulging in endless flights of whimsy, as he did to distracting effect in “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” (2004) and “The Darjeeling Limited” (2007), Anderson’s script, written with Noah Baumbach, is lean and sparkling with wit in the film, easily his most rewarding effort since 2001’s “The Royal Tenenbaums.”
As in Dahl’s novel, Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney) is a sly provocateur who feels most alive when stealing livestock.
In Boggis, Bunce and Bean — “horrible crooks, so different in looks,” but “nonetheless equally mean” — he finds formidable foes whose well-stocked farms are irresistible to an incorrigible thrill seeker. But Mr. Fox’s daring is not without consequence.
Mr. Fox is, as he never tires of reminding his exasperated wife (Meryl Streep), a wild animal. It’s the excuse he uses when justifying his need for mischief, undiminished from his misbegotten days as a professional poultry thief, and when explaining to his angry neighbors why the three farmers are on the warpath.
He’s not a good listener — he favors the sound of his own voice, as his underappreciated son (Jason Schwartzman, at his deadpan best) and lawyer (Bill Murray) will attest — and he’s reckless.
But Mr. Fox is not without charm. His obliviousness is often played for laughs, as are his most pompous affectations. (He celebrates even his smallest victories with the kind of self-congratulatory swagger that would make a humbler beast blush.)
Yet, like most of Anderson’s characters, he is prone to introspection, and his decision to be a more responsible husband and father carries with it more of an emotional undercurrent than one might expect.
Family angst is a theme common to Anderson’s movies, yet “Fox” eschews the muddled melodrama that sank “Life Aquatic” for wryly self-mocking humor that never condescends its audience.
It’s a gas from the get-go, and welcome proof that Anderson hasn’t lost his flair for comedy that people actually laugh at.
Fantastic Mr. Fox ****
Starring Voices of George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Michael Gambon
Written by Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach
Directed by Wes Anderson
Running time 1 hour 27 minutes