Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox is a cartoon for grownups, not in a raunchy Ralph Bakshi way but with thematic maturity and an animation technique that adults will consider nostalgic and kids may dismiss after the initial novelty wears off.
Simply put, Fantastic Mr. Fox is the anti-Pixar, created with handmade stop-motion animation considered too labor-intensive for a computerized film world. Why bother with puppets shaped bit by bit, frame by frame, to evoke the slightest movements when a few keystrokes can accomplish the same?
That Anderson chose this anachronistic style makes perfect sense; he hasn't yet made a movie in conventional manner. As this one proceeds, it's clearer that Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums and The Darjeeling Limited also were cartoons but with real (and really damaged) people. The same ironic ennui permeates Fantastic Mr. Fox, distancing it from the typical audience for animation (i.e., kids) — unless those children plan to attend film school.
George Clooney voices Mr. Fox, who gave up stealing chickens for a respectable career as a columnist for the meadow newspaper. His wife, Felicity (Meryl Streep), prefers hubby that way but, as he often states, you can't expect such behavior from a wild animal. Mr. Fox plans one final caper — shades of Clooney's Danny Ocean character — which is actually three burglaries of local farms that would fit nicely in a Wallace & Gromit comedy.
Those capers are lively, but Anderson is more interested in the foibles of human relationships, albeit in animal bodies. The Foxes' son Ash (Jason Schwartzman) resembles most young heroes in Anderson's films, plagued by Oedipal issues and generally insecure feelings. Especially with the arrival of his too-perfect cousin Kristofferson (Wally Wolodarsky), who's taking his place as Dad's favorite and as thievery accomplice.
There's more, but you get the idea that Fantastic Mr. Fox isn't easy kids stuff. The violence level is fairly harrowing, and the neuroses more acute than, say, Buzz and Woody's abandonment. Yet neither is it as adult as Anderson seems to wish it could be. The quick red fox straddles the fence a bit this time.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.