Despite having the tag-line "Based on the Beloved Book by Roald Dahl" emblazoned on its promotional posters, Wes Anderson's stop motion adaptation of Fantastic Mr Fox is not a children's film. At least, not in a conventional sense. Anderson's film may well be five-star-approved by the I-reckoning celebrity tabloid reviewer, and hoards of parents will have bundled their mini-mes into multiplexes across the country to see the film during half-term week, but the Texan auteur has created something in Fantastic Mr Fox that, although having a genuine multi-generational appeal, you do feel heavily leans toward a more mature audience.
Of course, Anderson's aesthetic lends itself to children's cinema superbly; his meticulously methodical cinematography, captivatingly cluttered mise-en-scéne and thick lashings of vivid primary colour create an attractive visual vehicle with which to tell the story of the extraordinary Mr. Fox. However, other aspects of Anderson's style do not make such a successful transition from quirky-films-for-adults to quirky-films-for-children. The dry humour which ran through the veins of Anderson productions such as The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) and The Darjeeling Limited (2007) is, I would wager, quite lost on a juvenile audience when pumped through Fantastic Mr Fox, and Anderson's use of understated sexual tension and malapropistic substitution is too frequent to be dismissed by a mere pantomime-dame-wink. In short, I am not entirely convinced whether there is enough beyond the entrancing aesthetic aspect of Mr Fox to keep children from wishing that their parents had taken them to see the latest animated offering from Disney or Dreamworks instead.
However, as the tag-line suggests, at the foundation of Anderson's Fantastic Mr Fox is a work by one of the World's most recognised children's authors. Anderson retains the narrative core of Roald Dahl's 1970 story, but in order to fit the 82 page book into 87 minutes of film he has stretched, pulled and supplemented the original work quite considerably. In the opening scene of the film, Mr Fox (voiced by George Clooney) and Mrs Fox (Meryl Streep) find themselves caught in a farmer's cage-trap. Whilst behind bars, Mrs Fox reveals she is pregnant and wants Mr Fox to obtain risk-free employment as soon as possible. It is from this point onwards that this becomes an undoubted Wes Anderson picture; from the Foxes we draw obvious parallels with the sibling rivalry of the Tenenbaums, the eccentric matriarch of Eleanor Zissou and the dysfunction of The Darjeeling Limited’s Whitman family.
The siege of the Boggis, Bunce and Bean farms still provides the main plot point, but layered upon this is all the poignancy of a typical Anderson family portrait. The Foxes' son Ash (an only child replacement for the book's four fox cubs – voiced by Jason Schwartzman) has to compete with his visiting cousin and all-round athlete Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson) for his father's admiration, something that will eventually land them both in very hot water, and Mrs Fox's desire for her husband to de-risk his employment status has found Mr. Fox in the monotonous position of a newspaper man. Ash's desire to make his fantastic father proud and Mr Fox's desire to reclaim his once adventurous lifestyle from the grip of bourgeois conformity provide the narrative drive towards the hectic action of Dahl's book, which, when played out, is done so with admirable faith.
Fantastic Mr. Fox, like so many of Anderson's other outings, is essentially an exploration of a flawed protagonist at the head of a deteriorating or dysfunctional family. The poignancy of this exploration is watered down somewhat for the intended audience, but not enough for it to enjoy the inevitable success of its release rival Up (a Disney/Pixar production which itself deals with the very adult themes of infertility and bereavement, but in a way that does not encroach upon the child's escapist enjoyment of the picture).
Mr Fox is very much a close adaptation of the original book (although set within an Anglo-American landscape, rather than a quintessentially British one), which has been framed, quite wonderfully, within a Wes Anderson film. And in the same way that, for the mature reader, Dahl's fable passed comment upon the intrusiveness of agribusiness on the natural world and the Spenser/Darwin idea of 'survival of the fittest', Anderson's film ends passing similar contemporary comment by having the Fox family infiltrate Boggis, Bunce and Bean's international supermarket, rather than continuing to use Dahl's mid-20th century farmers' stockrooms to replenish their dinner plates.
Of course, whether Anderson's Mr Fox will be as fantastic as Roald Dahl's original in the pre-teen popularity stakes, I cannot be conclusively sure. However, I would imagine that even if it has not succeeded in fully captivating its perceived target audience, Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr Fox has not in any way alienated any of the director's existing adult following.
Fantastic Mr Fox premiered on October 14th 2009 as the opening film of the 53rd edition of the London Film Festival. It is on general UK release from October 23rd.