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Fantastic Mr Fox, London Film Festival | reviews, news & interviews

Fantastic Mr Fox, London Film Festival

Fantastic Mr Fox, London Film Festival

Crazy like a vulpus: Wes Anderson's first animated feature

It would be an understatement to say that the auguries weren't good for Wes Anderson's first animated movie, the world premiere of which opened the London Film Festival last night. The distributor - Twentieth Century Fox, by a neat coincidence - was coy about screening it to critics, the trailer (below) was teeth-grindingly unfunny and an uncommonly candid feature in the Los Angeles Times earlier this week reported deep tensions on the film's London set.

Apparently Anderson didn't take a shine to the idea of a year in Blighty and instead went to ground in Paris, airily stating that, having set the style of Fantastic Mr Fox, he intended to leave the actual work of shooting it to his team and then "kind of spruce it up" at the last minute (he sent instructions across the Channel by email). "He has made our lives miserable," the film's director of animation, Mark Gustafson told the LA Times. The cinematographer, Tristan Oliver described him as "a little sociopathic."

FantasticFoxDahlAll of which didn't bode well for an American taking on Roald Dahl's much-loved, very British classic. Nor does the offbeat, ironic comedy on display in Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic or The Darjeeling Limited immediately suggest him as the go-to guy for a family film.

But this is a thoroughly disarming piece that displays all its director's quirks and few of his irritant qualities. It's not an uproarious belly-laugh movie; more one that leaves you smiling out loud. But that's entirely as one expects from this most deadpan of humorists.

The opening finds Mr F, a suave fox about town in a brown corduroy suit, abandoning a life of crime as a chicken thief to settle down, start a family and take a proper job as a columnist for the local paper. Alas, the Fourth Estate fails to provide him with the thrills he craves, and he relapses into his felonious ways, stealing squabs, cider and other goodies from three local farmers. This trio of unpleasant businessmen brings out big guns and bulldozers to thwart the pest. Mr Fox, however, has a plan.

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This is the adventure part of the story that's highlighted, slightly misleadingly, in the trailer. And it's true that the film rehearses a certain amount of droll action shtick. However Anderson has adopted a retro design and ultra-low-tech approach; he deploys the stop-motion process (the frame by frame animation pioneered by Ray Harryhausen and adopted by Nick Park in the Wallace and Gromit series), without any computer-generated embellishments. It's all slightly goofy and deliberately, rather sweetly, clunky - in short, not a film for Xbox addicts.

Besides, Anderson's forte is his keen observation of the small oddities of human behaviour and he transfers this smoothly to his dysfunctional vulpine family. Mr Fox's alienated son, his cool teenage nephew, the phalanx of oddball woodland creatures that surround him - all these fit seamlessly into the director's universe. If many of the jokes - such as a running gag about the animals' Latin names - will fly over the heads of younger viewers, these should not be prevented from enjoying it. After all, it didn't do the Shrek series any harm.

Mr Fox is a close relation of Basil Brush, and this film's success depends on its ability to get the audience rooting for what could be an insufferably smug character. His mouthpiece, George Clooney, goes a long way to enabling this; and there's one genuinely poignant moment near the end when the urbane/ urban Mr Fox catches a glimpse from afar of the wild wolf which he fears yet would secretly like to be.

In fact Anderson has called in a few favours from his mates in assembling the cast. Meryl Streep is a silken-voiced and (there is no other word) foxy Mrs Fox while Bill Murray, Brian Cox and Anjelica Huston have also been drafted in. Oscar-winner Adrian Brody appears way down the credits in a minor role and Jarvis Cocker supplies the bango-plucking music.

Yes, the voices have been Americanised, although the villains, led by Michael Gambon, are British in the time-honoured Hollywood tradition. The local village has an Olde English flavour, with its pillar box and local pub, The Nag's Head. But the high school is definitely American, and a possum pops up in the supporting cast. It's an odd, hybrid world and Anderson doesn't cleave too closely to Dahl's story but it doesn't too much matter.

The director's recent films - especially The Darjeeling Limited, which opened the London Film Festival two years ago - have been blighted by a faint air of hipper-than-thou. Fantastic Mr Fox will be measured against Spike Jonze's version of Maurice Sendak's Where The Wild Things Are: both represent sharp, modish film-makers attempting to reel in a broader audience. Jonze's effort opens in the US tomorrow and will be reviewed on this site later his week. But for Anderson, the interim news is good: this atypical project has allowed him to relax, connect with his characters and story and produce something of a modest, unassailable charm.

Fantastic Mr Fox plays in the London Film Festival today and Saturday. It opens in cinemas nationwide on 23 October.

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it's spelt "banjo"...

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