There is something about the glittering list of names that appear in the opening credits of Fantastic Mr. Fox that seems to suggest that fate had a hand to play in the making of this picture. In retrospect, it seems only inevitable that George Clooney would, having acted out every possible permutation of the lovable scoundrel-rogue in live action film, simply move on to providing voice work for the same character in a different species. Similarly, anyone who kept a close eye on the career of Wes Anderson should have anticipated an eventual Roald Dahl adaptation. To date, his track record of directing endearingly quirky family dramas reads like a Dr. Seuss poem: they’ve taken place in a boat, on a train, and now, with a fox!
What is incredible, though, is how minimally the presences of Anderson, Clooney et. al. are felt throughout the film. Yes, there are distinctly Anderson-esque touches — particularly in the set designs, an almost-too-cutesy mix of typically antiquated fashion and interior design, and bizarre anthropomorphicisms — but they are overwhelmingly respectful of the source material; unintrusive and obviously a sign of how much Anderson and screenwriting collaborator Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale) enjoyed the book.
The plot, which hardly needs repeating, is a timelessly brilliant one, but it was clear from the outset that it could not be stretched into two hours without some tweaking. Thankfully, Anderson and Baumbach have taken the Brokeback Mountain route — which isn’t to say that a beautiful relationship develops between Messrs Fox and Badger, but rather, that they have elaborated on each scene, stretching out individual moments and allowing the action to unfold at its own leisurely pace, rather than simply making up a whole new story.
So, Mr. Fox is now a journalist, having turned his back on the glamorous life of poultry poaching after one too many — as Ulysses Everett McGill would put it — tight spots. He has a son who is perpetually frustrated by his own lack of athletic prowess, and a wife who paints landscape scenes replete with vivid thunderstorms (voiced superbly by Meryl Streep, whose dulcet tones positively exude maternal instincts).
They — and a whole menagerie of their woodland cohorts — are pitted against the malevolent forces of Farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean, who are reimagined here as a sort of sinister corporate entity rather like Timothy Dalton in Hot Fuzz. Bean (Michael Gambon), the group’s de facto leader, is a particular pleasure, often hilarious for no reason other than for the sound of Gambon’s coarse London twang being addressed to a bristling puppet fox.
Loyal defenders of Dahl’s canon can relax. This is a tenderly faithful treatment, full of countless flourishes that serve as reminders of the novel’s ingenuity, but is also, critically, a remarkable work in its own unique way: funny, moving, and not without the sense of dangerous mischief that characterised all of Dahl’s works.