Like a gifted child at playtime, filmmaker Wes Anderson is one to marvel over his cinematic toys — a fertile imagination giddy with trains, hydroplanes and foreign automobiles. Many of his trademark preoccupations travel through his first movie, “Bottle Rocket,” straight through 2007's “The Darjeeling Limited.”
Anderson, though, well knows that his vehicles and curios and even wry-wit scripts alone do not transport the audience. To accomplish that, you have to hire smart. Enter right, George Clooney.
“That's one thing: I wanted to cast him,” says Anderson, speaking from New York shortly before his animated film, “Fantastic Mr. Fox” — based on Roald Dahl's beloved tale — opened nationwide Wednesday. “I've loved his work in so many movies.” Off the top of his head, Anderson cites “Three Kings,” “Michael Clayton,” even a memorable episode of “ER.”
After two fairly tepidly received films (“Darjeeling” and “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou”), the director fortuitously had landed the roguish actor to voice the title role of the thieving, charming volpone. But even after casting Clooney, Anderson did not fully appreciate what a fantastic fox he had.
That realization came after some of the voice stars — including Anderson regulars Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman — headed to their friends' farm to record lines in the atmospheric outdoors. It was there Clooney — veteran of suave, talky con men (“Ocean's 11” to “O Brother, Where Art Thou”) — lent his textured talents.
“When we went and recorded on the farm in Connecticut, I got documentary recording of some of these roles,” says Anderson. “The thing I did not realize — until only afterward, when I went to the cutting room — was how much he brings to the performance and how much we'd already gotten. For the animators, these voices are their key inspiration.”
The Oscar-winning Clooney voices a bushy-tailed burglar who settles down into duller life as a family man-fox and newspaper columnist before his midlife crisis, in fox years, compels him to filch again from three menacing farmers. Anderson, who expanded Dahl's story considerably, says “Fox” was the first book he owned — at least the first one he ever wrote his name in. Now, critics are saying the director, stylistically, has made the story his own — with droll irony and cultural reference points galore, the Andersonian signature is all over it.
The filmmaker says he was inspired, too, by Meryl Streep, who voices Mr. Fox's wife, Felicity (a nod to Dahl's second wife).
“I recorded with her in Paris,” says Anderson. “And I felt like she actually changed my approach to the movie. She brought so much emotion, it was (like): This is where it's got to be. The stakes can be higher.”
The Streep sessions were part of the continual stoking of the film's potential. Anderson co-wrote the screenplay — with “The Squid and the Whale” director Noah Baumbach — after being inspired by a pilgrimage to Gipsy House, Dahl's home in Buckinghamshire, England, in 2000. (Dahl died in 1990.)
“It was muggy and gray and colorless — the house wasn't, but the landscape was. … The place was fascinating,” says Anderson, noting Dahl (who's gifted Hollywood with Willy Wonka and “James and the Giant Peach”) is a hero of his.
“Fox” has a striking palette — it's a literal moveable feast of autumnal tones, a Thanksgiving pageant of true-fur textures and watercolor skies. Anderson says the Dahl house, its garden — even a tree resembling the Fox home in the film — provided visual spark.
“The whole look of it came from that,” Anderson says. “At a certain point, when you decide that the grass is going to be (the color of) yellow bath towels, then you're set on a certain course. … The other thing is, once you decide that the sky is not blue and the grass is not green — that you're going to have a hyper-autumn — that combines with the (effects where) smoke is made from cotton balls and water is made from Saran Wrap.”
True to his rep, a demanding Anderson says he sweated every stop-motion detail of his warm-eyed woodland figurines, which he affectionately calls “puppets.”
That means while Hollywood trumpets ever-advancing CGI and 3D effects — from “Up” to “Monsters vs. Aliens” — Anderson insisted upon the laborious, shoot-a-movement-at-a-time technique that first hit the sepia-silver screen during the Calvin Coolidge administration (1925's “The Lost World” was a pioneer). But why stick with stop-motion now?
“It's kind of tried and true,” says the Oscar-nominated filmmaker of “The Royal Tenenbaums” and “Rushmore,” whose soundtracks underscore a nostalgic aesthetic. “I grew up on the Rankin-Bass animated specials. I'm 40, and I cannot express how revved-up my brother (who voices Kristofferson in `Fox') and I were when the holiday specials (came around). Those were the ones we really looked forward to. “
So with “Fox” in his pocket, does he plan ever to do another animated film?
“Yes, definitely,” says Anderson, who could have exclusively a stellar animation career, if he wanted it. “For my next film, I'll be working with (onscreen) humans again. But yes, after that.”
If you're listening, Mr. Clooney, you might want to keep the mobile ringer on high.