Old technique of animation revived for 'Mr. Fox'

Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney) and Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) are woodlands creatures in 'Fantastic Mr. Fox.'20th Century Fox

Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney) and Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) are woodlands creatures in "Fantastic Mr. Fox."20th Century Fox

"How can a fox ever be happy without a chicken in his teeth?"

That profound question of identity and purpose, asked by a raffish red predator with the voice of George Clooney, haunts "Fantastic Mr. Fox," a work of stop-motion wit and wonder from director Wes Anderson, who suggests one possible answer during the film's charming and exuberant conclusion: A fox can be happy — for 2 minutes and 31 seconds, at least — by leaping about with his friends and fox-y wife to "Let Her Dance," a 1965 recording by the Bobby Fuller Four.

Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney) and Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) are woodlands creatures in 'Fantastic Mr. Fox.'20th Century Fox

Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney) and Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) are woodlands creatures in "Fantastic Mr. Fox."20th Century Fox

Unlike Mr. Fuller, Mr. Fox fought the law and the law didn't won. This isn't giving anything away: "Fantastic Mr. Fox" is a so-called children's movie, so you don't imagine the title hero's pelt will wind up nailed to a barn door, even if a sharp-shooting farmer does liberate Mr. Fox from his fluffy tail during the man-vs.-animals feud that propels the story.

A celebration of "wild animals with true natures and beautiful talents" (in other words, artists and children?), "Fantastic Mr. Fox" is Anderson's sixth feature film in 13 years and his best since "The Royal Tenenbaums" in 2001.

Adapted from a 1970 book by sardonic children's author Roald Dahl ("Charlie and the Chocolate Factory"), "Fox" was brought to life via the painstaking stop-motion animation process in which small, puppet-like figures are moved, photographed, repositioned and photographed again, to create the illusion of movement when the film is projected. Almost as old as filmmaking itself, stop-motion was utilized most famously in the 1933 film "King Kong," and in the fantasy films of Ray Harryhausen, as well as in such Rankin/Bass holiday specials as "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."

The handcrafted, old-fashioned stop-motion technique, which requires a monk's patience and a watchmaker's attention to detail, is perfectly suited to Anderson, whose eccentric live-action films — particularly "Tenenbaums," "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" (which featured some stop-motion undersea creatures) and "The Darjeeling Limited" — are characterized by a proud artificiality and an emphasis on design and almost taxonomic order. ("Fantastic Mr. Fox" finds joy in the recitation of the animals' Latin names — Vulpes vulpes for red fox, for example.) The movie suggests that Anderson, unbeknownst even to himself, might have been moving toward stop-motion all along.

Shot in London, "Fantastic Mr. Fox" concerns a well-dressed fox who gave up killing birds to become a woodlands newspaper social columnist after his wife (voiced by Meryl Streep) became pregnant. The couple's son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman), is sensitive and undersized; he resents the presence of his much more accomplished classmate and cousin, Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson).

A lawyer friend, Badger (Bill Murray), discourages Mr. Fox's recklessness, but "Foxy" knows that what he does best is to "court danger, hunt prey and outsmart predators." Chafing under the yoke of domestic confinement, he enlists his possum pal (Wallace Wolodarskey) to help him carry out a series of secret raids on three high-tech poultry farms. Unfortunately, these thefts attract the wrath of the heavily armed and well-financed farmers, and the war of attrition between species that results becomes a commentary on the cost of conflict in our own human world. The message is soft-pedaled, however, so that it's perfectly easy to enjoy this battle purely for the visual delights of its stop-motion slapstick and suspense.

— John Beifuss: 529-2394

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