Animated ‘Mr. Fox’ almost perfect

By Christopher Smith,
Posted Dec. 10, 2009, at 6:05 p.m.

In theaters

FANTASTIC MR. FOX, directed by Wes Anderson, written by Anderson and Noah Baumbach, 88 minutes, rated PG.

The new Wes Anderson movie, “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” is a treat and a threat.

Here is one of the year’s best animated films — it’s terrific, almost perfect, cataclysmic, not sophomoric — and naturally, that’s how it’s a threat, particularly to Pixar’s “Up,” which is their highest-grossing movie to date, and the one film most are betting will win the Academy Award come February.

Will it? I wouldn’t bet on it just yet.

Anderson and Noah Baumbach based their script on Roald Dahl’s 1970 book, and what they created is a movie encouraged to roam along a wacky landscape where good writing matters, wit infuses the bon mots and close attention to character is key.

The film is funny, surprising and smart, with stop-motion animation employed instead of the more-common computer animation. Given that the beautifully rendered “Coraline” also was released this year in stop motion, and that today finds Disney releasing “The Princess and the Frog” in traditional 2-D painted animation, one wonders if we are in the midst of an animation throwback.

About “Fox” — just try getting through it without a laugh. The film is about Mr. Fox (George Clooney) and how he must win back the trust of his wife, Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep), and earn the love of his bickering, disenfranchised son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman), when Fox, a newspaper columnist, slides off the tracks and goes back to his thieving ways. The reason? Money is tight, sure, but a fox always is a fox, and shaking off those foxy instincts proves impossible for Mr. Fox to do.

In his sights are henhouses owned by Boggis, Bunce and Bean, grim farmers loaded with rabid dogs and enough artillery to bring down a battalion. The lot of them are a force lead by Bean (Michael Gambon), and they don’t take kindly to their trade being stolen by a bunch of crooked animals.

Not that that will stop Fox and company. Joining him in his quest to put turkey on the table are the opossum, Kylie (Wally Wolodarsky), who is a coward at heart but nevertheless tries to get beyond it, and whose eyes do things too funny to spoil for readers. Just enjoy them when they do their thing. Also involved is a cagey badger voiced by Bill Murray and Ash’s all-too-capable cousin, Kristofferson (Eric Anderson), who brings zen along with his zips. Against them are a mother lode of others, not the least of which is Willem Dafoe’s spurious Rat, who knows his way around a switchblade.

What will children make of this movie? Given the film’s level of sophistication, that’s up for debate. This movie is way on the fringe, and some scenes are a little sketchy and violent, to say the least. But adults who turn out to see it — and they are encouraged to see it — will find something unique and trippy, an animated tale that celebrates the medium and honors it.

Grade: A-

On DVD and Blu-ray disc

JULIE & JULIA, written and directed by Nora Ephron, 123 minutes, rated PG-13.

Nora Ephron’s winning movie is about the life of Julia Child (Meryl Streep, terrific in the role) and the young woman, Julie Powell (Amy Adams), who came to blog about her experiences of cooking every one of the 500-plus recipes from Child’s iconic cookbook “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” in just one year.

What ensues is light, but not slight. The performances sell this movie straight down the line — they are so intoxicating it’s easy to gloss over the script’s occasional lapses into cliche.

Wisely, Ephron dips back into Child’s life long before she became a celebrity chef trained by Paris’ infamous cooking school, Le Cordon Bleu. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, she was living in Paris with her diplomat husband, Paul (Stanley Tucci, excellent), and trying to figure out what she wanted to do with her own life. Should she make hats? Not for her. Since she apparently can’t eat enough French food (“Look at me! I’m growing right in front of you!”), perhaps she could learn to cook and then teach the craft.

Ephron intercuts this story with that of Julie’s. Here, we’re in New York City, it’s 2002, the backdrop of Sept. 11 is everywhere and Powell, on the cusp of turning 30, is unsure what to do with her own life. A failed novelist, she now answers phones for those affected by the events of 9-11. And then, with the help of her husband (Chris Messina), she starts her blog, breaks out the pots and pans and gradually reveals herself to herself.

And that’s the movie’s point. Over the course of the film, these two find themselves, with Ephron maneuvering seamlessly through their lives. In spite of playing a mostly unlikable, self-centered character, Adams acquits herself as well as she can here — she remains among the brightest young talents working in Hollywood. Still, given her character’s grouchy sullenness, her story sags in comparison with the one Streep enjoys.

That likely won’t surprise anyone, particularly given Streep’s seemingly bottomless talent and the fact that she doesn’t give Child totally over to caricature. The script allows her to stand tall — literally and figuratively — amid the funny moments audiences will expect, and also the trying moments they may not have predicted. After all, success wasn’t handed to Julia Child — she had to work hard for it. In “Julie & Julia” you feel her struggle and her disappointments, which makes the ending — and how Ephron pauses so perfectly on the final scene — such a satisfying moment to behold.

Grade: B+

WeekinRewind.com is the site for Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s blog, DVD giveaways and movie reviews. Smith’s reviews appear Fridays and weekends in Lifestyle, as well as on bangordailynews.com. He may be reached at Christopher@weekinrewind.com.

http://bangordailynews.com/2009/12/10/living/animated-lsquomr-foxrsquo-almost-perfect/ printed on September 22, 2014