Last night at the Odeon Leicester Square, The Times BFI 53rd London Film Festival presented its opening night gala screening and UK premiere of Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox.
In attendance were the director, and cast members Jason Schwartzman, George Clooney (to the biggest cheer), Eric Anderson, Jarvis Cocker (who makes a cameo in the film and contributes a song), Dahl’s widow Felicity, and Bill Murray, who shouted his own introduction from the wings as ‘standing in for Meryl Streep!’ when she was unable to attend due to a bout of flu.
Quirky, quietly charming and with a hint of darkness, Fantastic Mr Fox will surely outfox it’s nearest box-office rivals. Director and co-writer Wes Anderson’s playful adaptation of the Roald Dahl novel allays fears of an overly American tone. Retro stop-motion animation and art-direction provide a very English feel, even when accounting for the frequent American diction.
Many years ago, Mr Fox (voiced by George Clooney) promised his wife Felicity (Meryl Streep) that his days stealing chickens from the farmers were at an end. 12 ‘fox-years’ later, he is living a domesticated life with his wife and young son Ash (Jason Schwartzman), plus a visiting young nephew, Kristofferson (Eric Anderson). Mr Fox soon gives in to his wild instinct to hunt, but his daring raids bring the farmers’ vengeance on his family and the surrounding animal community. Forced out of their homes, Mr Fox must hatch a grand scheme to save them all from final extermination.
Amongst a fanfare of children’s movies of varying narrative quality this year, here we feel a connection to something physical; the puppets’ fur ripples under the invisible fingertips of the animator. It’s a happy side-effect of the technique that it produces such living expression in the characters’ faces. A scene running through a wheat field made of what appears to be wool has a wonderful texture and quality to it. Chapter titles throughout the film pay homage to its literary origins, signposting the way for younger viewers whose attention span may wander during the leisurely pace.
Anderson regulars Bill Murray and Owen Wilson contribute to the supporting cast, while British thesps take the roles of stock Hollywood bad guys in the guise of the evil farmers, each with their own disgusting, Dahl-esque eating habits. In this case, the Brit casting actually makes sense given the rural English setting. Michael Gambon steals his scenes as the villainous Farmer Bean. A man with a love for firearms and cider, he has a deliciously brooding, gravelly voice that slides between his lips and an ever-glowing cigarette.
The sub-plot concerns Ash’s jealousy of his father’s high regard for Kristofferson. In pursuit of success to equal his father’s, he is brushed aside in favour of his cousin, leading him to put the two cub’s lives in danger. Final recognition of the son by the father hands Ash the opportunity to prove his worth in the final showdown with the farmers. These are relationships that most children will recognise from their own lives, and they are nicely woven into the fabric of the main narrative.
At times the film also flirts with adult subject matter. Startling direct exchanges between Mr and Mrs Fox leave no doubt of a marriage strained by his impulsive actions, and the death of a foe is handled with a light touch of genuine and rare pathos. The subject of a lover’s fidelity also sneaks in and out of the dialogue, hinting at Dahl’s more adult writing on such matters in his short stories. This is a film for, and about, husbands and wives, fathers, mothers and children.