Fantastic? Not quite - Mr Fox misses the Dahl menace

Fantastic Mr Fox, London Film Festival
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More star wattage is what the London Film Festival (which opens tonight) has been promising us. Given the added emphasis on red carpet events, opening the LFF with an animated feature was clearly a risk.

Then again, Fantastic Mr Fox comes stuffed with big-name voice talent – and many of the stars, George Clooney and Bill Murray among them, were in town to tub-thump on Mr Fox’s behalf. Cannes this year opened with Pixar’s Up... so London’s decision to give a world premiere to the latest Roald Dahl adaptation has its precedents.

Fantastic Mr Fox is certainly a crowd-pleaser. Festivalgoers used to daunting and downbeat opening movies will secretly have welcomed a movie as upbeat and cheerful as this.

Director Wes Anderson isn’t an obvious choice to helm a biggish budget animated feature aimed at a family audience. As Anderson has shown in films from Rushmore to The Darjeeling Limited, his sensibility is determinedly offbeat and ironic. With Fantastic Mr Fox, which he co-scripted with regular writing partner Noah Baumbach, he is engaged in a very delicate balancing act – one he just about pulls off. His achievement here is to have made a film with just about enough vigour and visual panache to appeal to an audience used to the marvels of Pixar and Aardman while also retaining some of the studiedly cool quirkiness that has long been his trademark.

Kids may be a little baffled by the existential musings of the hero Mr Fox (voiced with great oomph by George Clooney). The dapper hero who likes to dress in corduroy jackets (as does Wes Anderson himself) is suffering from a mid-life crisis. Fox is seven years’ old in non-Fox years. His father died at seven-and-a-half and he has decided he doesn’t want to live in a hole any more. He is a newspaper columnist with family responsibilities but he can’t resist his animal instincts. The prospect of carrying out a “last big job” against the evil farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean is just too appealing.

Anderson’s approach to his source material is ambivalent. On the one hand, he is reverential. Roald Dahl’s name is foregrounded in the opening credits and Anderson retains much of the original storyline. On the other hand, he has “Americanised” the book. He and Baumbach have added plenty of plot twists and new characters of their own. The action unfolds in some cartoon netherworld that is part Tennessee and part English home counties. The varmint heroes also speak with American accents. The farmer villains, meanwhile, are very English. The music includes everything from the old Davy Crockett theme song (“king of the wild frontier”) to a ditty performer by Jarvis Cocker on a banjo, from bluegrass to the Beach Boys.

Of course, it’s debatable whether big animated movies are ever really auteur-driven. More than any other form of filmmaking, they are collaborative efforts. The irony here is that the stop-frame animation is far livelier and fast-moving than the storytelling in some of Anderson’s live-action movies, which often tend toward the languid.

Anderson and his animators (who worked out of Three Mills Studios in London) throw in some tremendous set-pieces. These include an apocalyptic sequence in which the rabbits and their underground neighbours are almost drowned when Farmer Bean’s cider is pumped into their burrow, an altercation between Fox and a rabid dog and a spaghetti western style showdown between the varmints and the farmers.

It’s hard to sell an animated movie on the basis of its voice stars. Self-evidently, we can’t see their faces. Nonetheless, there is plenty of zest in the voice work here. Clooney is brash and cocksure as Mr Fox. Willem Dafoe brings an appropriate snarling arrogance to his role as a psychotic rat and Michael Gambon sounds world-weary and misanthropic as only he can as Farmer Bean. He is as cruel as the forgetful and diffident Badger (a mournful-sounding Bill Murray) is benign.

What the film lacks, for all its inventiveness, is the sense of menace and sadism that bristles through Dahl’s best stories. In Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox, we have a real sense that Fox and his family face starvation when the farmers blockade them. Here, even though Fox loses his tail and the farmers are very mean, there is no real sense that the critters underground are suffering.

Fantastic Mr Fox has a gently subversive edge that many mainstream animated features lack. It celebrates a hero in Mr Fox who is a habitual thief. With all its imagery of furry creatures down holes, there is a mild erotic charge here too. The dialogue is smart and sassy enough to entertain the adults. Kids should enjoy the antics of the younger foxes, Fox’s son Ash (voiced by Jason Schwartzman), desperate to emulate his feats, and his karate expert cousin Kristofferson (Eric Anderson). It is possible, though, that the film will prove too spiky and idiosyncratic for the mainstream audience that its producers clearly crave.