Saturday, 24 October 2009

And so it begins...

A look at Fantastic Mr Fox

Growing up in Britain during the last few decades of the 20th Century, you can't have failed to have encountered Roald Dahl's work in some form or another. A friend of mine read his books well into high school, I'm sure I still have a VHS of Danny The Champion Of The World in a box somewhere. (We had two copies of the book in the house). I was taken to see the film of The Witches as a ninth birthday treat (looking back, I think it's quite cool that my parents took me to see a Nic Roeg film at such an early age - surely they wouldn't have done that had they not trusted the source material so much). My trip to New York in 2005 was topped off by a visit to a 42nd Street cinema to catch Tim Burton's version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Wes Anderson's decision to film Fantastic Mr Fox raised some questions. Could he move from live action to animation? Would an American director treat the material in the same way as a Brit would?

Those questions were answered watching the film. Anderson and his writing partner Noah Baumbach apparently stayed at Dahl's old house in Great Missenden to write the screenplay, and the film was shot at Three Mills studios in London. (Just a short distance from Elliptical Edits central). Though the leads would be American (Clooney and Streep, with smaller roles for regular Anderson collaborators Jason Schwartzman,i Bill Murray and Owen Wilson), like Burton's ... Chocolate Factory, the film appears to be set in a fictional country that is a strange amalgam of the US and the UK.

Given that Anderson was the director, I was only reminded that it was a "kid's film" by the trailers that preceded it (though I have to say I was relieved by the absence of the increasingly tiring Orange mobile phone adverts).

From the first shot it is recognisable as Anderson's work - quirky dysfunctional families are his stock in trade, which makes him a perfect match for Dahl's writing. Dahl's usual mix of mischief, low level crime and mistrust of authority figures and joined by an Oedipal subplot involving Mr Fox's son and his cousin.

I was wrong - this is no kid's film, though I'm sure children will enjoy it, and though it's perhaps not as dark as some of Dahl's work, adults will find much to love. Anyone who saw footage of Dahl at work in his writing shed will note the similarities between that and Mr Fox's study. The deliberately, defiantly rough stop motion animation is an antidote to those who use CGI as a matter of course. It is perhaps no surprise that Bill Murray described his visit to the studios as "one of the most exciting days I have ever had in the film business." Coming from a man who has played Hunter S. Thompson and must have spent days covered in marshmallow for Ghostbusters, that's high praise.

There is nothing that will scare, and plenty that will delight children, and enough for adults to enjoy, Fantastic Mr Fox is a crossover gem. It also includes the best cameo from a former Britpop star since Damon Albarn popped up in Antonia Bird's excellent Face.

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