Monday, November 16, 2009

The Fantastic Mr. Fox



Critics and cinephiles either love or hate Wes Anderson's films, but in the case The Fantastic Mr. Fox, which got a whopping 92% on Rotten Tomatoes, the only people griping seem to be animators. Personally, I dig Anderson's stuff and I'm also a huge animation nerd, so this could have gone either way for me.

I thought it was wonderful. It's exciting to see something so off-beat and un-Shrek-like in the world of mainstream animation.

In fact, watching it made me wonder why it took so long for Anderson to make an animated film. His work always has such distinct stylistic choices, in terms of acting, set design, cinematography, music, etc - its all got his unique "stamp." And no other medium gives you quite as much control as animation - you do, after all, have to create every little thing that will appear on screen (be it building or drawing), and then control every single frame of movement. It's movie making for obsessive crazies.

The animation community hasn't been that thrilled with the aesthetics of this film, which I can understand. When I saw the first few still images that hit the 'net I got pretty nervous; the character designs looked like a furry's wet dream. Luckily that isn't really the case, and there's a certain charm to them once they're in action. At least, that's how I feel, but animation snobs would disagree.

Here's the thing: As much as I loved Coraline, the movement was so slick I'm sure most viewers thought it was CG instead of real/tangible puppets. Mr. Fox really felt like it was hand-made, there was no escaping it. Their fur and clothing jumps around from the animators touching them in each frame, which I found exciting. So while some may call the aesthetic crude, to me it made everything feel more wild and unpredictable (a motif of the film, perhaps?) It reminded me of the stop-motion animated series of Wind in the Willows made by Cosgrove Hall, which I loved as a kid.

Unlike CG animation, when doing stop-motion you can't set "key frames" (the character poses or main action beats for a scene, sometimes on a timeline of frames). Instead, you're forced to animate straight-ahead, with only a storyboard (and probably an x-sheet if there's dialog) to guide you. In other words: stop-motion is pretty damn hard. But it looks incredible because the characters physically exists and were shot with a real camera, instead of created in a digital 3D plane.


Much like Spike Jonzes' Where the Wild Things Are adaptation, the source material for Mr. Fox already had some teeth to it, making a film that kids can certainly watch, but adults might appreciate even more. True, this is a film about a rascally fox who outsmarts a bunch of farmers via wacky hijinks, but it's somehow also about our wilder side dying out in an ever expanding (human-run) world of industrialized production. For Mr. Fox and the inhabitants of his world, the best way to deal with it all is to dance exuberantly in a grocery store, and I was ready to join in.


- NPR had an interesting segment about Roald Dahl's widow, who puts directors under rigorous scrutiny before giving them the rights for a film adaptation. Listen here.

- Some behind-the-scenes goodies via the lovely blog Drawn: a collection of amazing concept art (see above) and an interview with a storyboard artist from the film.

- The Bergdorf Goodman holiday window displays in Manhattan feature puppets of Mr. Fox and friends, alongside some clothing that would feel right at home in the movie.

- Say what you will about Wes Anderson's music choices, but this soundtrack features several Burl Ives and Beach Boys songs, and that's never a bad thing.

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