I remember reading a prediction Tim Burton made in an interview back in 1993 when The Nightmare Before Christmas had just been released. The director was Hollywood’s golden goth, his string of disappointments still a few years down the road. So there was some reason not to burst into laughter when he pronounced that his film would spark a wave of imitators. “Everyone,” he said, “will be using stop-motion animation.”
Well, “everyone” proved something of an overstatement. Precisely one American filmmaker’s world was rocked by Burton’s vision, as it turned out. His name is Henry Selick. And he doesn’t really count, because he’d already come under the director’s wing well before Nightmare hit theaters. He directed it, in fact, under Burton’s watchful eye. He latter was credited as producer.
Since then, their work has remained largely indistinguishable. In 2005, Burton directed Corpse Bride. In 2006, Selick gave us a stop-motion adaptation of Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach, which Burton again produced. Earlier this year, Selick released a stop-motion adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, which possessed a distinctly Burtonesque look despite the fact that this time his mentor did not produce or otherwise participate.
So much for Burton’s visionary proclamation. Sixteen years have passed, and only now do we have the first major work of stop-motion animation from an American director outside Burton’s immediate creative circle. It is Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, and it was worth the wait.
Also adapted from a children’s book by Roald Dahl (the Philip K. Dick of family films), Anderson’s latest is a furry feast for the eyes and one of the year’s funniest movies. George Clooney provides the voice of its title character. On the heels of his portrayal of a man who stares at goats, the actor breathes life into a nattily attired rapscallion with his sights set on poultry.
“Can a fox ever be happy without a chicken in its teeth?” he ponders existentially. It’s a purely theoretical question early on, as he and his feisty young bride (Meryl Streep) playfully help themselves to the feathered property of nearby farmers. With the birth of their first child, however, comes pressure on Mr. Fox to put his coop-looting ways behind him. He reinvents himself in the role of a local newspaper columnist and even moves up, literally, from a hole in the earth to a home inside a tree, with assistance from a badger lawyer buddy (Bill Murray).
In due time, though, Mr. Fox discovers the answer to that fundamental question is “no.” He resolves to pull “one last big job,” the execution of which draws the wrath of three particularly ill-tempered and heavily armed farmer barons upon himself, his family and his menagerie of cohorts.
Barnyard battles have rarely been as scrupulously color coordinated and divinely art directed. Anyone who has come to appreciate Anderson’s penchants for symmetry, whimsical riffs on animal and marine biological design, underplayed pathos, muted familial dysfunction, offbeat soundtrack compilations and dollhouse-style cross-section views (think Steve Zissou’s vessel) will admire the manner in which the filmmaker has incorporated his trademark motifs into this experiment. In doing so, he hasn’t merely expanded on Dahl’s source material. He and cowriter Noah Baumbach have made it into something far cheekier and even more magical.