21st Century 'Fox'

Wes Anderson stages a comeback via Roald Dahl
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FILM A lot of people have been busting filmmaker Wes Anderson's proverbial chops lately, lambasting him for recent cinematic self-indulgences hewing dangerously close to self-parody (and in the case of 2007's Darjeeling Limited, I'm one of them). Maybe he's been listening. Either way, his new animated film, Fantastic Mr. Fox, should keep the naysayer wolves at bay for a while — it's nothing short of a rollicking, deadpan-hilarious case study in artistic renewal.

While the movie's gorgeous autumnal color palette of saffron, ginger, cinnamon, and pomegranate recalls the Indian location of Darjeeling, Fox explodes that film's stagnant complacency. A kind of man-imal inversion of Anderson's other heist movie, his debut feature Bottle Rocket (1996), his latest revels in ramshackle spontaneity and childlike charm without sacrificing his adult preoccupations.

Sporting a double-breasted corduroy suit and velour pullover, Mr. Fox (George Clooney in full suave mode) is the essence of the old duality of man-fox conundrum. The ultimate impish rogue, what he might lack in competence, he makes up for in self-assured, foxlike élan. But Mr. Fox's true animal nature has been compromised by domesticity. Forced to give up his chicken-stealing and killing ways by his wife (a subtly sly Meryl Streep), he's also stymied by his only son (Jason Schwartzman), an attention-starved, Max Fischer-esque oddball with a penchant for sporting a towel as a cape.

Based on Roald Dahl's beloved 1970 book, Fantastic Mr. Fox captures the essence of the source material but is still full of Anderson trademarks: meticulously staged mise en scène, bisected dollhouse-like sets, eccentric dysfunctional families coming to grips with their talent and success (or lack thereof).

And then there's that pesky, romantic death obsession. Sure the animals are cute, but at times the stop-motion animation lends them a singularly creepy subtext. Fur routinely flits around in scattershot directions, seemingly independent of body movement. The effect weirdly evokes those time-lapse shots of animals in rapid decay.

As Mr. Fox himself points out, these are "wild animals with true natures and pure talents" — talents that often involve killing one another. After a fatal showdown with a malevolent rat (Willem Dafoe), Fox waxes philosophic. "In the end, he's just another dead rat in a garbage pail behind a Chinese restaurant," he intones. It's possibly the most contextually stupefying, hilarious moment in a film teeming with them.

When Mr. Fox finally embraces his essential foxiness once again, ultimately succeeding in gaming the system (more or less), it feels like a victory for Anderson as well. After all, he's concocted a family film as slyly subversive as its titular character, and done so on his own terms. Let's hope it's in his nature to make more movies like this one.

FANTASTIC MR. FOX opens Wed/25 in Bay Area theaters.

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