Adapting a Roald Dahl story is not an easy task. Born in a rural Welsh village to Norwegian parents in 1916, Dahl struggled through the strict British boarding school system during the inter-war years before joining the RAF for World War 2. It was only after this action-packed and dynamic life, when he had settled in a rural village in Buckinghamshire, that he began to write his children’s books; and every story he has written is infected with his confusing and multi-faceted character.
His Scandinavian heritage was the source of a zany passion for storytelling and the epic myths of Germanic folklore; but he was also a product of the British public school system, and his views on the world were precise and often caustic. He never lost his childlike love of sweets and creatures and discovering new words for the first time; and yet he lived through many tragic incidents that tempered his frivolous passion for life.
All of these things are cloaked behind Twits and Snozzcumbers in his books, but any artist wishing to adapt his work into a new medium must be willing to deal with the intricacy of his vision, or they will find themselves floundering under the criticism of the legions of Dahl lovers across the world. Quentin Blake had a unique understanding of his cherished friend’s work, and his illustrations are now as much a part of Dahl’s stories as the words are.
But when Wes Anderson first called Dahl’s wife to ask for permission to adapt Fantastic Mr. Fox into a film, it was the first time an artist with such a famous and recognisable visual style and auteur sensibility had tried to take on a Dahl story. Now, a decade after that first phone call, Anderson’s film is ready to burst out into the wider world.
This is Anderson’s first foray into animated filmmaking (aside from a few snippets in ‘The Life Aquatic’); and may also be his biggest budget too date, which means he had to answer to more powerful and involved studio executives. It has also come at a time when Anderson’s status as an infallible filmmaker is being questioned. After early works like Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, Anderson was the darling and the lynchpin of US indie cinema. But in recent years, after The Life Aquatic and Darjeeling Ltd., many critics have voiced their concern over his ability to maintain, never mind build upon, his early promise and vision.
An animated adaptation of an adored children’s story is certainly one way to silence those critics, but the potential for disaster is also frightening. There were negative reports leaking from Three Mills Studios in Hackney, where much of the film was created, that suggested Anderson was not cut out for animation. He was often unavailable through the gruelling months of stop-frame filming, choosing instead to direct the film via email from Paris and LA. And so there were many people who worried that the film would lack Anderson’s unique, complex and detailed style.
Well, as an adoring Anderson fan who owes his passion for cinema partly to those early films, it gives me great pleasure to report that Anderson has pulled it off with his usual understated panache and sly, hidden confidence.
For anyone who worried that the animation would cloak or unravel Anderson’s famous visual style, you needn’t worry at all. This is a Wes Anderson film right down to the carefully composed, symmetrical framing, the almost theatrical depth of field, and the colourful, choreographed movements. If anything, the stop-frame animation has allowed Anderson to rediscover his early inspiration for this unique style, and it feels as fresh as it did in Rushmore and Bottle Rocket all those years ago.
The animation is far from perfect, and takes a while to get used to., but it is fun and playful and I picture Quentin Blake (the eyes through which we all read Dahl’s stories) thoroughly enjoying it. Dahl and Blake never aspired to technical perfection, so why should this film?
For anyone who worried that directing a children’s film for a studio would cloak or unravel Anderson’s famous authorial themes and expressions, you needn’t have worried either. This is a Wes Anderson film right down to the deft comedic touch, the witty and caustic dialogue, and the obsession with domestic crises and troubled parental figures.
Anderson seeps through into the story, dialogue, and quirkiness of the project; and his unofficial troupe of actors (Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman specifically) ensure that his bitter but somehow earnest and hopeful comedic touch is stamped on every moment of the film. Without giving too much away, Mrs. Fox is now a dedicated landscape painter who can’t help painting the destructive forces of nature (lightning, tornadoes, etc) into her pieces. This is classic Wes Anderson: creating a dark and unusual character foible and then leaving it to fester in the subtext of the story world, without ever forcing its way into the narrative.
The real success, though, is that while the film is undeniably ‘Wes Anderson’ throughout, he has also stayed true to the real message and tone of Dahl’s vision. This is not so surprising because Anderson is an avowed Dahl fan and I imagine the two would have got along famously had they ever met; but it is nevertheless impressive. Anderson may have dispensed with the verse and rhyme of the original story, but a film adaptation should never simply be a carbon copy.
The world of the film is certainly less quaint and English; Mr Fox now has a sulking teenage son, Ash (Schwartzman), who attends high school and is green with envy at his more athletic cousin. Mr Fox is now a ‘newspaper man’ (a la Cary Grant) after packing in his spiv lifestyle, and the animal community has a much more clearly defined, twentieth century feel to it (estate agents, lawyers, sports coaches, etc.) But there is still that playful edge that was ever present in Dahl’s writing; that sense that he was enjoying a joke that he never quite revealed to his readers. That is something that Anderson excels at, and it works perfectly here.
I suppose it would be unseemly to ignore the leading man, and one of the most recognisable names on the planet, George Clooney. I went in to the film wishing that Anderson had used an established ‘Anderson troupe’ member (one of the Wilson brothers perhaps, or Adrian Brody) who could have brought an extra level of quirky pathos to the project. But I realise now that Clooney was the only man for this role. This is his first animated feature, and while it hardly an earth-shattering performance, he is technically faultless, and he constitutes a solid anchor around which the rest of the cast can deviate. While Brody or the Wilsons would have created a brooding and pathetic Mr. Fox, Clooney is the very embodiment of Cary Grant (Anderson’s inspiration for the role): quickwitted, confident to the point of being brash, but utterly charming and roguish.
This film may not silence Anderson’s critics; it is not perfect and there are plenty of weaknesses to tear away at. But nobody can deny that this was a Herculean task, and Anderson has succeeded where so many filmmakers would have failed. He has not sold out to those who wanted a children’s film, he has not retreated into the depths of art cinema, he has not sullied the great name of Roald Dahl, and he has not lost his authorial touch. For all of these things, I applaud the irreplaceable Wes Anderson.