This is the autumn, apparently, for our hippest filmmakers to get in touch not only with their inner child, but with their inner puppeteer as well. First it was Spike Jonze, whose Where the Wild Things Are conjured looming, lumbering monsters out of feathers, fur, and a daub of CGI. Now it’s Wes Anderson’s turn: In Fantastic Mr. Fox, a stop-motion adaptation of Roald Dahl’s sleek novella, he’s one-upped Jonze’s super-sized marionettes with a cast of miniaturized marvels, foxes and badgers and possums and rats, all exquisitely handcrafted and brought to life one painstakingly arranged frame at a time.
It’s a near-perfect marriage of filmmaker and form, since you might say that Anderson has spent most of his career trying to apply a stop-motion style to live-action films. From Rushmore onward, his sets have been designed within an inch of their life, and he’s arranged his actors against them like figures in a diorama, or dolls in the world’s most meticulous dollhouse — framing them in wide shots that accentuate their hyper-aestheticized surroundings and de-emphasize their agency.
This style, neatly complemented by Anderson’s mannered, deadpan scripts, earned him adulation and a host of imitators, but by the time The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou rolled around it had begun to feel like something of a rut. You can watch dysfunction in dollhouse-land only so many times, it turns out, before what seemed unusual and exquisite starts to feel airless and claustrophobic, precious and (worst of all) twee.
With 2007’s The Darjeeling Limited, Anderson tried to break out of this box, sending his protagonists — a trio of troubled siblings — on a rambling tour of India, and ditching the titular train midway through to explore a wider, wilder, less stage-managed setting. Fantastic Mr. Fox, by contrast, doubles down on artifice: With its stop-motion animals and painstakingly devised backdrops (it reportedly required 150 sets, 4,000 props, and over 500 puppets), it’s the most self-contained cinematic world imaginable, luxuriating cheerfully in its vivid unreality.
And it works. This is Anderson’s best effort since The Royal Tenenbaums, and possibly since Rushmore. But it isn’t just because his devotion to insanely detailed world-building is a perfect fit for a movie populated exclusively by puppets. It’s because this time he has a tightly plotted storyline to work with. Whereas Anderson’s recent films have often felt interminable as well as claustrophobic, Dahl’s novella is all narrative economy, and all action. It’s a kind of animal-kingdom Ocean’s Eleven, with the foxes as the sympathetic robbers, the vicious farmers Boggis, Bunce, and Bean as their odious antagonists, and the latter’s storehouses — filled with chickens, cider, and all manner of delights — as the casino vault that our heroes need to penetrate.
The movie takes this story and makes a proper caper movie out of it. There are more hair’s-breadth escapes and a bit more derring-do than in the book, and more characters as well. Like any good Robin Hood, Mr. Fox (voiced by Danny Ocean himself, George Clooney) ultimately needs a whole team to pull his heist off, and so his immediate family ends up supplemented by his opossum handyman (Wally Wolodarsky), his badger attorney (Bill Murray), and then a gaggle of weasels, otters, moles, and rabbits. And, like any good villains, the three farmers need a henchman, which means Willem Dafoe makes a welcome cameo, giving voice to a sinister yet oddly sympathetic Rat.
Anderson makes two more additions. The first is a family subplot, involving Mr. Fox’s son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman), an undergrown cub who resents both his father and his more dashing and athletic cousin, Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson, Wes’s brother). The second is a much stronger note of melancholy. In Dahl’s book, the foxes and badgers are delighted to live permanently underground, feeding off the farmer’s storehouses, while their enemies wait in vain for them to emerge. In the movie, things are more ambiguous. “I’m a wild animal,” Mr. Fox tells Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep), explaining why he can’t stop taking risks, and there’s a sense throughout the film that this wildness is imperiled — that the farmers may be defeated, but that the animals will be forced to domesticate themselves in order to survive, living more as parasites on civilization than as the hunters they were meant to be.
The father-son-nephew angst I could have done without. It feels like a discarded subplot from The Royal Tenenbaums, and Schwartzman, for all his charms, is too sardonically adult to voice a teenager.
But the melancholy works, echoing in the background of the story like a stanza from Philip Larkin’s “Going, Going” (“And that will be England gone, / The shadows, the meadows, the lanes . . .”). It elevates the movie to something more than just a gorgeous, fascinating stunt, and it makes Fantastic Mr. Fox the second film this fall, after Jonze’s Wild Things, to wring more pathos out of puppets than many movies manage to generate from flesh and blood.