Fantastic Mr. Fox is a magical mixing of two ingenious sensibilities. Marry the dark, "scare the little darlings" playfulness of children's novelist Roald Dahl to the quirky, comic warmth of filmmaker Wes Anderson, assign it to ever-so-patient British masters of stop-motion animation, and you get a movie of whimsy, wit, warmth and wackiness, a Dahl parable (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) brought to animated life.
The Anderson brand of wit displayed in films like The Royal Tenenbaums — dysfunctional families in cute conflict — is, oddly, a near-perfect balance for Dahl's darkness in this story of a Fox (voiced by George Clooney) who settles down, has a cub (with wife Meryl Streep) but is restless for his "wild animal" days. The comic timing — rapid offhand banter — the garish look and the arch, raised-eyebrow tone of Mr. Fox all point to a filmmaker known for bemused detachment, a guy not afraid to fail big (The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou) in pursuit of a movie that doesn't look or sound like any other movie. Mr. Fox doesn't look like any other movie, not even the equally glorious stop-motion animated Coraline. And it doesn't fail.
Mr. Fox loves his wife, loves his double-breasted corduroy suits. He doesn't really love his "Fox About Town" newspaper column. What he really loves is his old life: stealing. As his son (Jason Schwartzman, whiny and perfect) hits his teen years and Mr. Fox reaches middle age, he has an existential crisis.
"Why a fox?" he wonders. "Why not ... a bald eagle?"
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He uproots the family, moves into a tree against the advice of his badger- lawyer (Bill Murray), takes in an athletically gifted nephew and returns to his old ways — raiding the henhouse, the smokehouse and the cider distillery of three successful but scary farmers, Boggis, Bunce and Bean. And that escalates into a war that involves all the farmers, all the foxes and every other animal.
Hilarious touches: When the fox and badger argue, it degenerates into a growling fit, literally. Profanity is replaced with one generic cuss word: "Cuss." "What the cuss was that? Shoot the cuss to smithereens!" A hep-cat rat (Willem Dafoe) fights the fox as if he's auditioning for West Side Story. And watch for the cameo by Brit singer-songwriter Jarvis Cocker.
There are life lessons that kids will absorb, about listening to good advice. Yet this gloriously retro stop-motion animation is that rare picture that's child-oriented yet adult-friendly. If you're a parent, you'd have to be an ornery cuss not to take the tykes to this.