Roald Dahl’s body of work has lent itself to myriad film adaptations, some good (“James and the Giant Peach”) and some not-so-good (“The Witches”). The best adaptations keep Dahl’s sense of dark humor intact, pitting his protagonists against villains representing conformity, ignorance, and society’s status quo.
It seems a natural fit for writer/director Wes Anderson (“The Darjeeling Limited”), whose protagonists often expel the same underdog energy raging against the machine as Dahl’s, to adapt one of Dahl’s works. One would think Anderson’s perennial hipster quirk would pair well with Dahl’s earthier, socially subversive quirk. And, with “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” it does.
When we first meet him, the titular Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney, “The Men Who Stare at Goats”) is a career farm-fowl thief, using his cunning to deprive local commercial aviaries of their denizens. He is accompanied by his wife, Felicity (Meryl Streep, “Julie & Julia”), who we learn “ in the middle of the opening squab-stealing caper “ is pregnant.
Fast-forward two-and-a-half years, and Felicity and Fox are living in a hole with their son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman, TV’s “Bored to Death”). Upon starting a family, Felicity asked Fox to promise he’ll pursue a safer line of work. He has given up stealing and, in a typically Andersonian plot detail, has become a newspaperman for the local Gazette.
The Foxes live a conventional life, with Mr. Fox spending his days at the office and Felicity raising the now-teenaged (in fox years) Ash, who has a major inferiority complex due to his small size.
Fox decides he doesn’t want to live in a hole anymore, and he buys a place in a tree trunk against the better advice of his lawyer, Badger (Bill Murray, “Zombieland”), who points out that Fox will be moving his family into the close neighborhood of farmers Boggis (first-timer Robin Hurlstone), Bunce (first-timer Hugo Guinness) and Bean (Michael Gambon, “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”), all three of whom are known for their mean and cruel natures.
Fox eventually gives in to the temptation of living close to them, and secretly returns to his old stealing ways. He assembles his nephew, Kristofferson, (Wes’s brother, Eric Chase Anderson) and their handyman, Kylie (“Monsters vs Aliens” screenwriter Wallace Wolodarsky), and embarks on a mission to sample the farmers’ goods.
After successful runs on all three farms, the farmers decide to kill Fox and his family. Bean is especially vengeful, and drags his companions out to Fox’s tree with picks and shovels to dig them out. The Fox family digs deeper under the tree, to which Bean responds with a group of backhoes.
Things look desperate not only for Fox, but for Badger, his family, and the other animals living in their part of the forest. Fox knows he’s responsible, and so he puts his cunning to work, formulating a plan to save his family and friends.
Let’s be clear: This is not an especially faithful book adaptation. The movie’s third act begins around the time the book ends, and Anderson creates several ancillary characters and embellishments to make the story his own, including a banjo playing minstrel (Jarvis Cocker, front man for the British band Pulp) and a convoluted game called “whack-bat.”
Still, these kinds of added details are a large part of Anderson’s charm. The male-bonding triangle between Ash, Kristofferson and Mr. Fox is entertaining and somewhat touching, as is Fox’s relationship with Felicity. Casting Willem Dafoe (“Spider-Man 3″) to voice the menacing Rat, who guards Bean’s apple cider stocks, adds a bit of dimension to what would normally amount to a throwaway character.
If “Mr. Fox” has a problem, it’s that Anderson is the kind of obsessive director who will create backstories for every character who appears onscreen. This attention to detail is great, except there’s not nearly enough time to fit everything into a 90-minute children’s movie. We don’t get enough of Badger, Rat or Coach Skip (Owen Wilson, “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian”).
In other words, the supporting cast is so accomplished that there isn’t enough room in the movie to let it stretch out. It’s like buying a Ferrari to drive down to the 7-Eleven for an ICEE drink and some Red Vines.
On the other hand, Anderson is playing to the kids, as he should be. The theatrical cut is the perfect length for the under-13 crowd, who will be pleased with the stop-motion animation, explosions, and goofy humor.
Still, for many adults and fans of Anderson’s other work, “Fantastic Mr. Fox” could have been at least 30 minutes longer, maybe more.