Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
I haven't researched either of these assertions, but I think at this point it's fair to guess two things about Wes Anderson: the man loves dollhouses, and he has some serious daddy issues. Both of these quirks are actually pretty decent attributes for an artsy film director, and Anderson's early films sparkled with a vision unmistakably his own, inspiring a cult following for his immaculate design and cunningly sharp emotional bite.
Unfortunately, an artist who keeps mining the same motifs and ideas again and again risks leaving his palette barren. With his two most recent films, we increasingly got Anderson as a caricature of himself — while funny in spots, they registered not so much as the singular work of the auteur but more like the various imitators that followed him. Still pretty to look at, there was something disappointingly flat afoot, more like an advertisement for an aesthetic than a human story.
Now, with “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” a stop-motion-animated adaptation of Roald Dahl's children's book, Anderson has responded to the grumblings about his lack of artistic growth by shrinking down to the very small. A forest full of fantastical miniature puppets (ironically enough, since critics had accused him of reducing human characters to puppets) allows him a playground for his fetishes of quirky details, intricately conceived interiors and bittersweet family drama. And, I am very happy to report, Anderson's decision to go further down the rabbit — well, fox — hole of his own boutique obsessions turns out to be a magical thing.
“Fantastic Mr. Fox” follows the adventures of its eponymous protagonist, boozily voiced by George Clooney. He's a wily chicken thief trying, much to his chagrin, to reform himself for the sake of his family. Mr. Fox is basically Clooney doing Danny Ocean, brimming with smooth recklessness. He has (surprise!) a strained relationship with his alienated oddball son, and defies his long-suffering wife by hatching various self-destructive plots to harass and steal from the local farmers.
The hand-crafted figurines and miniature physical sets are gorgeous mixes of toy-like artificiality and naturalistic detail. The animals have real hair that blows in the wind, bristles and tangles when wet, and clumps or flickers with facial expressions. They wear patterned undies and tailored corduroy suits. They kick at real sand or speak into dictaphones that look like they were hijacked from some kind of '70s-lawyer action-figure set.
The world in which they live is a wealth of astonishing details. Frame by frame, we enjoy one wonder after another. The labels on miniature jars of jelly and jam; custom-printed wallpaper and towels; middle-school science posters; the interior of a blueberry — the viewer's eyes dart around taking it all in, details begetting more details. It's a micro-managed universe of Anderson's hyper-stylized flourishes, and I found myself not just enchanted but absolutely floored.
The stop-motion animation, it turns out, fits the Anderson style to a tee. The animals and farmers physically stutter and jerk, which is precisely how his characters (at least male characters) deal with emotional trauma or existential angst: they stab at solutions; speak in half-sentences; start and stop; suddenly break or fall. Mr. Fox's son Ash is voiced by Jason Schwartzman, who also starred in Anderson's “Rushmore.” Schwartzman does his usual disaffected shtick — basically an extended riff on wallowing, Woody Allen with hipster tastes. Normally, this might grate, but the jerks of Ash's dark, jagged eyebrows are mesmerizing, hilarious and emotionally rich.
One continuation of Anderson's habits is rather depressing: females in Anderson films can be likable, but they're rarely fully conceived. Mrs. Fox, voiced by Meryl Streep, fits one common type: pure, wise, and long-suffering. Though these females occasionally express anger at the men, their role in Anderson's films doesn't really have anything to do with their own agency — they're conduits for the ping-ponging emotions of the immature men they love. They comfort, they are hurt, or they do the hurting. But the exceedingly detailed exploration of angst and self-pity remains, for Anderson, a boys-only affair. Mrs. Fox is reduced to a calm maternal presence amidst a storm of male buffoonery.
In the past, Anderson's male protagonists have met their comeuppance; the years of recklessness, failure to grow up and self-absorption lead these tragically charming men to truly damaged and lonely places. Mr. Fox, by contrast, makes peace with his boyish misbehavior with a kind of existential acceptance — a wild animal is who he is.
Perhaps that's an apt metaphor for Anderson himself: It's simply not in him to grow out of his impulses, so it's no surprise that he's at his best when he revels in them. He may be a bit of a dandy, sometimes precious, indulgent — but that's who he is. And Anderson being Anderson, even if it gets him in trouble from time to time, remains a joy to watch.
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