Fantastic Mr. Fox: **** (out of 4)
When I was growing up, my father loved to read to me and my brother. At first, this was mostly stuff like the Dr Seuss family of books, good stuff that read well and lent itself to memorization. But as we grew up, we got into more "sophisticated" fare. His absolute favorite was Roald Dahl, whose books (The Witches, The BFG, and especially The Twits) were twisted and humorous - what other authors do you know that write about a woman hiding her glass eye in her husband's beer? - but most of all, they're fun to read out loud. And as we grew older, and no longer quite so easy to read to, he's found other kids to read to - nieces and nephews, family friends, etc. But still, one of the things that comes to mind when I think of my Dad is the joy he got - still gets - from those dark, twisted, smart children's stories.
But I really wasn't expecting to be reminded so clearly of those old days when I walked into a second-run theatre on Sunday night and watched Fantastic Mr. Fox.
Part of it was the animation. I had seen the animation style in the trailers, and while I had been impressed, I didn't quite recognize at the time how close of a fit it was to Dahl's work. The stop-motion puppetry was different, immersive, effective, and ever so slightly off in a positive way. It was both jerky and graceful, and interestingly understated. The characters were visually distinctive, both in stills and in their motions. Together, it brought across Dahl's writing style in a visual manner, something that I don't think any previous adaptation has managed nearly so well.
Another part of it was Wes Anderson's direction and writing. I certainly had seen his minimalist dialogue, quirky writing, and episodic formats as conducive to a children's story - something like The Royal Tenenbaums would play spectacularly for children, IMO - but I hadn't really thought of how it would work out with animation. But Dahl's work clearly matched his style in a way that I had little reason to suspect going in. The adaptation felt like a book, and the narration gave it that feeling of a bedtime story.
But mostly, it was that story, and more accurately the characters in the story. The characters were either unremittingly evil and dark (the humans, a few animals), or noble and dark (the rest of the animals). Every character was flawed, and they wore their flaws on their sleeves. Their mistakes were made knowingly, telegraphed for the viewers in a way that didn't seem fake or unfair. And while the good guys may come out on top in the end - more-or-less - it's not without some losses that seem both real and relevant.
Together, it felt like a bedtime story that was worth listening to long after I should be done with listening to bedtime stories. And I spent the whole movie grinning.
I didn't see this movie in 2009, but it may still be my movie of the year. Or at least I think that's how it works. Certainly, I look forward to seeing it with my father when it's out on DVD. And if, for some reason, he ever works on The Twits or The BFG, I suspect I'll have to fly out to see it with my Dad on opening day.
(Also - we have a second-run movie theatre in the Bay now? Yay, Bluelight!)