A director renowned for ornately crafted set decoration and meticulous framing, Wes Anderson didn't surprise anybody by taking on a stop-motion animated project -- where literally every shot could be composed of a zillion perfectly composed still photographs. And, indeed, Anderson's 2009 opus Fantastic Mr. Fox (based on the children's book by Roald Dahl) proves to be as perfect a fit for the auteur as fans were hoping.
The film opens on the titular Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney), a charming rake of a woodland creature with a penchant for devilish adventure, usually involving chicken theft. He and his wife (Meryl Streep) are engaging in just this kind of youthful mischief one day, when Fox's usual cleverness momentarily fails and the two find themselves caught in a trap. Newly pregnant with their son, Mrs. Fox makes her husband swear that if they make it out alive, he'll never engage in these kinds of dangerous antics ever again.
Fast forward to 12 years later, and Mr. Fox has a safe, modest job writing a column for the local paper. He's got a happy, simple life, but things could be better. His son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman), is a bit on the small, timid, unathletic side, and the only home Mr. Fox can afford upgrading to just happens to overlook the backyards of three ultra-mean farmers. But, of course, for a magnanimous rascal like Fox, any minor hindrance can be turned to his advantage, and after settling into his new place, he uses his proximity to the three facilities to pull off one last heist...at each farm. That's all well and good until the farmers catch on, and Fox and his neighbors are forced to band together in a stand-off against the tyrants.
Though Anderson's past films have clearly shown his aptitude for just this kind of storybook style -- full of maps and illustrations and cross sections -- his stories have also historically been built around sometimes darker ideas about human relationships. But, rest assured, that kind of angsty cynicism doesn't creep its way into Fantastic Mr. Fox at all. Though Anderson's trademark deadpan banter and clever silliness are in full force (helped, no doubt, by a choice to record the cast live, together, and on location -- as opposed to in a studio), the script is no less sophisticated than anything out of the filmmaker's catalogue, and there isn't even a trace of bellicose self-indulgence; he's not taking the opportunity to work out issues with his childhood, though he probably could have gotten away with it, if he really wanted to.
Fantastic Mr. Fox is a gorgeous film -- painstakingly constructed to the point of delight, even for Anderson's standards. But the movie is also spot-on tonally: it's quirky without getting precious, emotive without getting morose. At a time when Pixar has more than proven that family movies can be layered and refined, Anderson's mix of dry wit and unmistakable tenderness blurs the cinematic line between grown-up and kid fare even further, to the benefit of everyone -- except for future contributors to the genre, who'll find that the bar has been set dauntingly high.