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November 22, 2009

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Hand-crafted screwball fun

IT may not merit the adjective in its title, yet the animated yarn "Fantastic Mr Fox" offers some of the most goofy fun you'll have at a theater this season.

With George Clooney, Meryl Streep and Bill Murray leading the top-notch voice cast, director Wes Anderson has found an ideal story and medium -- stop-motion animation -- to bring his cockeyed vision to the cartoon world.

Brits may be annoyed at this latest Americanization of one of their beloved literary works.

Yet in the hands of Anderson ("The Royal Tenenbaums," "Rushmore"), Roald Dahl's illustrated children's book gets loving treatment and a distinct hand-crafted style that sets it apart from the sleek computer-generated imagery dominating animation today.

This story of a poultry-thieving fox and the evil farmers waging war on him is a delightful whirlwind of mayhem and high spirits.

It's lightweight fun, yet "Fantastic Mr Fox" succeeds on all levels, presenting cute and clever little varmints to charm children while offering adults merry screwball humor that slyly stretches the film's family-friendly PG rating.

Clooney provides vocals for the title character, a fox who reluctantly gives up his glamorous but perilous chicken-snatching life at the behest of his wife (voiced by Streep), who wants to raise a family in peace and quiet.

Years later, they have a nice new home that stretches the finances of Mr Fox's job as a newspaper columnist for the local animal community.

The Foxes have a sullen teen son ("Rushmore" star Jason Schwartzman) whose insecurities are compounded by a visit from his handsome, talented cousin (Anderson's brother, Eric, also an illustrator on the film).

Poultry caper

His domicile in plain sight of the livestock and produce riches of farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean, Mr Fox is unable to resist one last poultry caper, but his raids on all three farms bring down the mechanized wrath of the human world on all surrounding wildlife.

Trapped underground with his family and a menagerie of angry neighbors, Mr Fox marshals an inter-species rebellion against the humans that want to exterminate them.

The slightly clunky, coarse animation -- little puppets on miniature sets, moved in tiny increments and photographed a frame at a time -- beautifully complements this shaggy-dog story.

Some of the facial expressions the animators achieve with their furry puppets are as weirdly expressive as anything you'll find in the human world, while the Wolfman-like close-ups of Mr Fox at his most manic add to the great energy of the film.

The wisecracks in Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach's screenplay often are hilarious, as is the slang the animals use to cuss like sailors.

Clooney's in his best smooth-talker form and Streep's vocals are pure grace and class, supported by great drollery from Schwartzman and frequent Anderson collaborator Murray, providing the voice of a Badger who is Mr Fox's attorney.

Willem Dafoe provides menace as a rat guarding the poultry, while Michael Gambon lends sonorous voice to the main heavy, Farmer Bean (the farmers all have British accents, the animals American).

These animals basically are humans in fur costumes, walking upright and relating to one another in neighborly isolationism, each family and species caught up in their private concerns.

Common foes and shared adversity break down their aloofness. The effect is rather like watching the kinship-building that goes on in Anderson's live-action films as disparate blood relations and oddball strangers coalesce into something resembling a family.

A perfect family, no. But definitely one you won't mind joining for an hour and a half of cinematic pleasure.


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