By William Benker
Why Adaptations Still Work (When Done Properly).
Fantastic Mr. Fox – 2009 – dir. Wes Anderson
Adaptations of nearly forgotten children’s stories are a complicated process. It requires certain tools, one could say, in order to “re-invent” the story in an appropriate way. It must be done carefully, not daring too far from the original heart of the book, yet driving the narrative towards a more theatrical climax, properly combined to invigorate not only the audience, but the depth of the story. While many other adaptations and remakes have both succeeded and failed to do this in the past decade, the stop-motion genre has invariably avoided such defeats. Unlike recent hits Coraline & Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (both directed by Henry Selick,) Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox looks gritty, perhaps even haphazard, if fans weren’t aware of the director’s impeccable career (The style more closely resembles 1988 Czech film Alice by Jan Svankmajor). The Fantastic Mr. Fox goes beyond exploring the classic tale through a more contemporary perspective. Through the expansion of the original narrative, Anderson amalgamates the story into modern thought, meticulously transfusing both Roald Dahl’s original message and his own artistic vision, proving once again that the auteur is still at the top of his game.
Often times an off-balance mixture of technological ease and modern story telling clash, leaving the viewer on one side or the other. Here, the line between the two is nearly indecipherable. Though there is little confusion where Anderson’s dry humor lies, the story’s tone never once misses a beat. Among the usual pedantic dialogue, the director makes full use of his stop-motion canvas, meticulously swaying the animal fur in every frame, creating a silent breeze that carries the literal tempo of the film. Sharp edges and careful framing compliment his photographic scope, and even Anderson’s favorite offset colors of autumn hues mix perfectly within the framework of the story, providing a visceral landscape to the lucid mise-en-scene.
While the original story only provides one act, the director’s ensemble cast delivers a humanist exterior to the moral framework of the fable. Fortunately, Anderson’s usual themes of alienation, self-reflection and personal triumph (or failure) neatly reflect Dahl’s own efforts to do the same. The real question becomes a contemporary inner-exploration of the protagonist that leads you to wonder “what makes the fox so fantastic”? The Fox (George Clooney) challenges the “social order” by stealing some chickens and cider, leading to an onslaught of heavy artillery. (In the book the Fox steals to feed his family, while the film depicts Fox’s hunger for adventure.) Alongside the protagonist, Anderson concentrates Fox’s family to his wife (Meryl Streep) and unconfident son Ash (Jason Schwartzman.) The rest of the cast provides the fuel for the narrative to expand. Characteristically exploring the disenfranchised troupe of animals, Anderson’s craft takes hold, stirring the pot allegorically. The Fox must take responsibility for his family’s current situation, accept his failure as chicken thief and come to terms with his slowly dwindling career as a young adventurous fox (or a tennis player, or a marine documentary filmmaker). Anderson adds to the mix even further through a Darwinist delivery, categorically rallying the group of animals by their Latin names. The director takes notice of his own contemporary interpretation, even giving one of the characters a credit card (possibly poking fun at his own American Express commercial.) Anderson continually makes note of the exuberant cinematic medium with visceral puns and self-directed jabs, only adding to the fun of the experience.
Still naturally geared towards children, the film’s humor will most likely find its way towards Anderson’s more mature audience. But again, thanks to the naturally gifted auteur, kids will still enjoy the simplicity of the tale and the artistic design. The film’s climax is a stop-motion spectacular, filled with fire and smoke, cellophane water and dog chases, all infused well within the tone of Dahl’s book. A climax that delivers a light hearted expose carried by the eerie but catchy theme of Boggis, Bunce & Bean (the films antagonists, voiced masterfully by Michael Gabon). Fans of Anderson will see why he chose such a story. While the original provides a figurative backdrop for the director’s usual themes, the story succeeds the adaptation by the synonymous nature of the protagonist within the eyes of both authors. Anderson explores this notion of survival through his own field of interest, but still maintains the integrity of its simplicity. The animals struggle to survive and must find their own strengths in order to adapt. In a way, even the director faces the same struggle, to direct the narrative’s contemporary faux pas harmoniously within contemporary ideas. All allusions aside, Fox eventually comes to term with his own predicament by the self-realization that they’re “wild animals”. Sure enough, Anderson’s fan-base will be sure to see his own relationship to the classic tale, serving as a perfect tool to come to his eventual conclusions.
Alongside Anderson fanatics, children who catch Fantastic Mr. Fox with or without knowing the book will surely seek out one when stumbling upon the other. And in that sense, the adaptation is still a success – a well-balanced combination of literature and film, carefully crafted to compliment each writer’s own ambitions, themes and artistic vision. Much like a disheartened Dignan (Bottle Rocket) or overzealous Max Fischer (Rushmore), the director crafts his characterization on his most ambitious candidate yet, and delivers it with the charismatic veil of George Clooney. The resolution is partly open, much like the book, and leaves the audience with a laugh. Chalk up another winner for Wes Anderson, who has once again created the perfect blend of humor, adventure and fun for all ages.