The Fantastic Mr. Fox came out on DVD a couple weeks ago, giving us a chance to re-evaluate this dark, comedic gem. How does Roald Dahl's dark whimsy mesh with Wes Anderson's quirky indie-adventurer sensibility? Mostly, pretty well. Spoilers ahead...
The Fantastic Mr. Fox is a great movie to have on DVD, because it's very episodic and it actually does quite well if you watch it in 10-15 minute chunks. There's so much going on in every shot — with the obsessive-compulsive Anderson is working in stop-motion animation, he can finally spend as long as he wants freaking out over every detail without having actors standing around waiting to shoot. And Anderson keeps just enough of Dahl's perverse brutality that the constant showdowns between Mr. Fox and his human nemeses get kind of nerve-wracking to watch after a full 88 minutes.
It's funny — Fantastic Mr. Fox came out around the same time as Where The Wild Things Are, and if you'd shown me both movies without telling me anything about them, I might have picked Mr. Fox as the film with the McSweeney's pedigree. It's got such a pronounced Dave Eggers vibe, with its cocktail of jaded innocence, and the feeling of terrible darkness looming in the backdrop. I'm reminded of a story Eggers wrote for Nick Hornby's anthology Speaking With The Angel, from the point of view of a wild, running dog. The main difference is that the animals in Mr. Fox are much more anthropomorphized than Eggers' dog narrator.
If you read Roald Dahl as a kid, then he probably freaked you out as much as he did me. He specializes in a kind of queasy horror. Frequently, animals become people or people become animals, or people get reduced in some way. Anyone who thinks they're powerful and inviolable learns the hard way that they can be violated and disempowered. Dahl is a mean-spirited writer, with enormous reserves of generosity. For my money, he's one of the bedrock inspirations for a lot of the best dark fantasy and urban fantasy, although I'm willing to admit I'm not an expert.
I don't think I ever read Dahl's Fantastic Mr. Fox in particular, but the movie version definitely feels very Dahl-esque. Anderson pays somewhat loving tribute to Dahl, although he extends the story quite a bit and adds a bunch of supporting characters and weird, silly Anderson-esque touches. If you felt that The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou was an all-time classic — and if you didn't, I don't really want to hear about it — then you'll get a lot of kicks out of Anderson's made-up game, Whack Bat. And the cast, including George Clooney, Meryl Streep and Bill Murray, are just as engaging as you'd expect.
The thing that Anderson teases out of Dahl's story, that's really fascinating, is the theme of wildness — these are anthropomorphic animals who wear natty clothes and talk about art and novels and sports. And it takes Mr. Fox, the self-centered asshole, to remind everyone that they're still animals and it's in their nature to run wild. Some of the greatest moments in the movie are the bits of non-verbal humor, where the characters suddenly go into snarling fits, or start eating like wild animals — or when Mrs. Fox scratches Mr. Fox's face really viciously.
If there's one major flaw to the movie, it's that it does feel too long, even at 87 minutes. In one of the DVD extras, Anderson talks about taking a very short Dahl tale and expanding it to a full-length movie, and it seems like part of the way he expanded it is by adding a lot of extra plot twists and perils. That's why I said, earlier, that it's a great film to watch in little chunks. It almost feels like a few episodes of a TV series, smushed together, at times.
Apart from the ability to watch it in chunks and take bathroom breaks, the DVD also has a handful of nice extras. It's definitely not one of those discs where you'll spend a day poring over the wealth of material, which may annoy some people but makes me really happy. The featurettes are short and high-quality, rather than bloated and repetitive. There's one featurette about translating Dahl to the screen, which includes storyboards and just enough of a glimpse of Anderson's OCD process and the way they made the fur come to life. (Anderson actually acted out the entire film himself on camera, all the characters, so they could actually see how it should look.) And there's a funny mockumentary about Whack Bat. And then there's a documentary about the puppets used in the film. Honestly, there's more material on the making of this film on YouTube than on the DVD, but the DVD extras are really well crafted. Oh, and there's no commentary track.
Fantastic Mr. Fox is probably one of those movies you'll end up watching once a year, or watching bits of from time to time, and seeing new stuff in each time. So it's a pretty great film to pick up on DVD, just to have around.