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FANTASTIC MR. FOX
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Gordon Justesen

Voices: George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe, Owen Wilson
Director: Wes Anderson
Audio: DTS HD 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Criterion
Features: See Review
Length: 87 Minutes
Release Date: February 18, 2014

I understand what you’re saying, and your comments are valuable...but I’m gonna ignore your advice.”

The cuss you are.”

The cuss am I? Are you cussing with me?”

Film ****

Did I ever think it was possible to find two of our most unique filmmakers, Spike Jonze and Wes Anderson, going outside their comfort zones to bring two classic children’s stories to life on the big screen in the same year? Did I ever expect to see a filmmaker like Anderson branch off into the world of stop motion animation? Did I think I would see an animated film in 2009 that would even surpass that of Up?

No’ would be the answer to each of those questions, but as it stands Fantastic Mr. Fox is one of the most appropriately titled films in history, because it is just simply fantastic. It is both a tour de force piece of filmmaking from Anderson, and yet is somewhat identical to themes explored in several of his past films. It also represents the very best film adaptation of any Roald Dahl book to date.

Anderson has been criticized, and unfairly so in my opinion, for repeating the same themes in the films following The Royal Tenenbaums. But the one good thing that came out of the negative criticism was that it may have been the very thing that inspired Anderson to go in a new and totally unexpected direction. And I’d like to think that these very critics were silenced by this brilliant and unique masterwork.

For me, the biggest joy of watching this film comes from seeing that brilliantly quirky Wes Anderson style seen through the aesthetic of a stop motion animated environment. Having cherished the filmmaker’s work all these years, the idea of seeing the furry creatures from Dahl’s universe talk like characters from Anderson’s universe just fills me with absolute joy. Added to that, the film has been done with such an incredible amount of detail and imagination from everyone involved in the filmmaking process.

The story is all about the title character and his family. Mr. Fox, voiced to absolute perfection by George Clooney, is as sly and daring as they come. His daily routine consists of ridding any and all farms of their chickens.

But after he and his wife, Felicity (voiced by Meryl Streep), narrowly escape death at the hands of angry farmer, he makes a promise to her that he will find another line of work. Cut to two years (12 fox years) later, and Fox has obtained a position as columnist for the local woodland newspaper. He and his wife live happily underground with their young son, Ash (voiced by Jason Schwartzman).

They have one temporary addition to the family in the form of cousin Kristofferson, voiced terrifically by Eric Chase Anderson (Wes’ brother), who’s staying with them while his dad recovers from pneumonia. Ash, who’s never felt appreciated by his dad, grows somewhat bitter at the attention given towards his cousin, who seems to have a natural talent at just about anything. This includes the treasured sport of Whack-Bat, which Kristofferson nails on his very first try.

As for Mr. Fox, he is sorely missing the days when he was free to let his animal instincts run wild, which he let go of at the request of his wife. And the fact that he’s purchasing a tree home located right next to a trio of animal farms isn’t going to help in burying that urge. His lawyer, Badger (voiced by Bill Murray), advises him not to move there, as the farms are owned by Boggis, Bunce and Bean, who are each mean, nasty, and very fox-hating.

But Fox moves his family in anyway, and he wastes no time sneaking out during the night to do what he does best. He hires his possum landlord, Kylie (voiced by Wally Wolodarsky), as his personal accomplice. Before long, Fox has his kitchen pantry stocked with chickens, geese and cider, which results in Mrs. Fox growing ever so suspicious and the three farmers retaliating with guns, tractors, explosives and various other destructive devices.

As far as animated films go, this is in my honest opinion a true game changer. Stop motion animation is an art form that’s never gotten its due and, in a market dominated by computer animation, may not any time soon. So the mere fact that a new feature in this type of style exists is a cause for celebration, alone.

But I think Wes Anderson should be commended for, what I think is, the greatest use of stop motion to date. On my second viewing, I found myself studying the detail of every character, which is nothing short of stupendous. When you take into account the hard work that goes into every shot in this process and the realistic looking features in the character designs, you cannot helped but be marveled by how the final result turns out. There’s a key shot where a character is standing while water is falling in the background, and it is without question one of the most beautiful shots that animation, or cinema in general, has given us.

Another element that makes it ground-breaking is the edgy and manic comedic tone, which is consistent throughout the film. This is a solid strength of Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach, both of whom have written stories with similar tones in the past, but only for live action fare. Never have I seen an animated film with a sly and quirky comic style like this, with the possible exception of Wallace & Gromit, which is its own special breed.

For me, Fantastic Mr. Fox represents what a great movie really is in that, as a viewer, you are consistently rewarded in one way or another during the film’s entreaty. It’s frequently hysterical, but when it’s not being funny we still have the engaging characters, intriguing story and the glorious animation style and character design, which you can’t help but appreciate as you watch. And if you’re a Wes Anderson fan, there’s even more to appreciate in terms of the writing, use of music, and the all around remarkable filmmaking.

Video ****

Criterion delivering an animated film of this caliber on Blu-ray is enough to cause excitement! Although the previous Blu-ray release from Fox was phenomenal in its visual presentation, this release gets an added boost in that the transfer was supervised by Wes Anderson himself! This was the first stop motion animated release I experienced on Blu-ray, and now more than ever it is a spectacular treat for the eyes. In glorious 1080p, this animated environment is breathtaking to gaze upon. All of the little details included in the stop motion process that I mentioned earlier are marvelously rendered here to the point that you never want to look away. The colors are absolutely magnificent, as well. In my honest opinion, this presentation is absolutely equal to that of a Pixar movie in this format. Hands down, one of the best experiences Blu-ray has ever given me.

Audio ****

The DTS HD mix beautifully accompanies the mesmerizing picture quality. For one thing, this is certainly the most action packed a Wes Anderson film has ever been, and such sequences are heard fantastically in the lossless audio. But even more riveting is how the quieter scenes play out. Anderson’s films mostly consist of dialogue with an awesome soundtrack of terrific music score lingering in the background. This follows that pattern and to great effect because the balance between words and music is handled brilliantly.

Features ****

Now HERE is where this brand new Criterion release completely OUTSHINES the previous Blu-ray release. For starters, the packaging is first rate and downright superb (Criterion has been doing this quite frequently with their recent releases). We get three discs total, including one Blu-ray and two DVD discs, with the features accompanying the BD and spread across both DVDs.

For starters, we get a superb commentary with Wes Anderson, which is always a treat! In addition, we also get a storyboard animatic for the entire film, as well as amazing footage of the actors voicing their characters, puppet construction, stop-motion setups, and the recording of the score. Also included are interviews with cast and crew, puppet animation tests, a photo gallery of puppets, props, and sets, as well as animated awards acceptance speeches.

And talk about a huge treat, as there is also an audio recording of author Roald Dahl reading the book itself! And it doesn’t end there, as we get an hour long documentary from 2005 titled “Fantastic Mr. Dahl." Rounding out the supplements are a gallery of Dahl’s original manuscripts, a discussion and analysis of the film, and a stop-motion Sony robot commercial directed by Anderson!

And lastly, like all great Criterion titles, there’s a booklet featuring a new essay by critic Erica Wagner; a 2002 article on Dahl’s Gipsy House by Anderson; White Cape, a comic book used as a prop in the film; and drawings, original paintings, and other ephemera.

Summary:

One of the best animated films of all time has been made even more, well, FANTASTIC on Blu-ray thanks to the most FANTASTIC folks at Criterion! The blending of Wes Anderson and Roald Dahl has resulted in a film to be treasured forever! Fantastic Mr. Fox is pure one of a kind cinematic magic that both fans of Anderson and animated films will cherish for years to come. This Blu-ray reissue is definitely worth upgrading to!

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