Monday, May 24, 2010

Another flawed father

The fleet tempo at which The Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) begins reminds me of nothing so much as Truffaut's narration in Jules and Jim. It says: "We're not going to fool around with excessive explanations, background and sentiment. Let's get right to the facts you need to know."

The result is a film not exclusively for adults, but should only be seen by children if they are accompanied by their adults. Like most Wes Anderson movies, Mr. Fox is about a complicated family in which bright but damaged children learn from the mistakes of the adults around them. George Clooney's Mr. Fox joins the pantheon with Royal Tenenbaum and Steve Zissou of flawed but loveable father figures. The brisk casual delivery is a welcome contrast from the overemphatic acting found in so much animation, especially stop motion, which everyone seems to think needs "help" in order to get over.

One of the lessons of The Simpsons was that animation can provide a greater density of information than live action because of the speed with which characters can move, speak, change locations, initiate and terminate actions. Unlike us clunky humans with our real-world bodies dealing with gravity and friction, animated characters can act as quickly as thought itself. This permits them to try and fail more rapidly, and failure has less serious consequences, especially for characters like Wile E. Coyote, who has an impressive ability to heal himself.

I had to confess I was skeptical that a director of conventional films, like Wes Anderson, could put more of a mark on an animated film than its animation director (Tim Burton is an obvious exception, but that is because of his visual design skills which dominate Nightmare Before Christmas more than the movement and performances). But I was wrong. Mr. Fox is much more like other Anderson films than it is like other animated films. Still, it is pretty family-friendly, especially if your kids are sharp to begin with. (I especially like the all-purpose deleted expletive "cuss", as in "I can't stand that cussing guy." Very useful.)

With its lack of songs, excessive moralizing and inane slapstick, it is the least boring animated film in a long, long time. And it still has a good lesson. You can make mistakes and survive them. And love keeps families together. OK, it's not brilliant, but the moral of Hamlet is "make up your mind," so let's agree that moral lessons aren't important to the quality of a work. But it will help justify letting children watch this cartoon with you.

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