A word of caution if you're planning to take your young to see Fantastic Mr Fox over the half-term holiday.
It's not just a film adapted from a Roald Dahl novel, it's a Wes Anderson film adapted from a Roald Dahl novel. As far as Anderson is concerned, the fact that it's a stop-motion animation featuring a cast of woodland animals is neither here nor there. It has at least as much in common with The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic as it does with the book you or your children read at school.
The story's outline hasn't changed much, though. Mr Fox is still a vainglorious daredevil who feeds his family by stealing livestock (and cider) from three farmers, Boggis, Bunce and Bean – "one fat, one short, one lean", as Dahl's rhyme goes. Eventually the farmers decide that it's time to retaliate, which they do with shotguns, spades and diggers. Mr F's poaching hasn't just endangered himself, but every quadruped in the area.
So far, so Dahl. But Anderson has filled in the book's outline in his own patented ways. His Mr Fox (voiced by George Clooney) gives up chicken-rustling to be a newspaper columnist, and he discusses mortgage rates with his lawyer, Mr Badger (Bill Murray). His son (Jason Schwartzman) is a misfit who yearns to win Mr Fox's approval, while his nephew, Kristofferson, is a student of yoga and kung fu. Co-scripted by Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale), it's an arch yet melancholy catalogue of 21st-century middle-class anxieties, even if the characters do have whiskers and tails.
Fantastic Mr Fox has an unmistakable Anderson look to it, too. The director is as fixated as ever on screen-filling close-ups and hyper-symmetrical panoramas, and his palette is so tightly controlled that his memos to the production designers must have read, "Any colour as long as it's orange". It takes some getting used to. You come with a certain set of expectations to any animation based on a children's novel, so it's unsettling to be confronted by Anderson's deadpan smart-aleckiness, not to mention his shaky plotting.
But once you accept Fantastic Mr Fox for what it is – a Wes Anderson product – it's an effervescent, silly, continually surprising treat. I enjoyed hearing a new Jarvis Cocker ditty performed by a Cocker-lookalike puppet, and I enjoyed it when Farmer Bean (voiced by Michael Gambon) then chastised him for "weak songwriting". It's also encouraging that the time-honoured craft of stop-motion animation has been represented by three such distinctive releases as Fantastic Mr Fox, Coraline and the latest Wallace & Gromit episode within the past year. But will pre-teen viewers be receptive to the film's idiosyncratic look, or the use of "cuss" as a swear word, or the endless talk of "bandit hats"? I hope so, but some of them may well be foxed.
The week's other children's book adaptation is Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant, directed by Paul Weitz. It was Weitz's brother Chris who adapted Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass, and although the tones and scopes of the two films are poles apart, they have a similar shortcoming. The Golden Compass was drawn from the first book of a trilogy, and The Vampire's Assistant is based on the first three books in a set of 12. This means that both films have to pack in reams of scene-setting mythology, without getting the story itself under way.
The Vampire's Assistant is stuffed with ancient prophecies, strained friendships, opposing supernatural factions and a big top full of unused characters, but all that actually happens is that a teenage boy (Chris Massoglia) joins a travelling circus and becomes the undead protégé of a 200-year-old vampire (John C Reilly). He doesn't go on any adventures or rise to any challenges, so watching the film is a bit like listening to the rules of football and then being sent back to the changing room before kick-off. As Chris Weitz could have warned his big brother after The Golden Compass failed to sprout a sequel, when a film is intent on nothing more than starting a series, it can sometimes ensure that the series isn't going to happen.
Also Showing: 25/10/2009
Colin (97 mins)
Promising British zombie film shot on a camcorder for £45. Its gimmick is that the hero is one of the zombie hordes, which is both a clever idea and the project's undoing: zombies just don't have very engaging personalities, so Colin should have been about 20 minutes shorter.
The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard (90 mins, 15)
Unpleasant comedy starring Jeremy Piven as a swaggering car salesman. He seems to be impersonating the film's producer, Will Ferrell, who wisely decided not to star himself.
Coffin Rock (89 mins, 15)
Low-budget Australian "Foetal Attraction". An Irish drifter impregnates a married woman on a drunken one-minute stand, then demands that she run away with him. The villain may be the least scary psycho in film history, despite assaulting a baby kangaroo.
The Cove (90 mins, (12A)
Upsetting but thrilling exposé of the annual dolphin slaughter in Japan after a few have been picked out to jump through hoops in US theme parks.
Made in Jamaica (120 mins, 15)
Mind-numbing reggae documentary. Stick to the soundtrack album.