I have to admit a certain trepidation whenever Americans adapt things that are terribly English. Think what Disney did to poor Winnie the Pooh, or NBC to The Office. They just don’t seem to, well, understand. (Back in 2003, acclaimed director Guillermo Del Toro departed the set of an aborted attempt to adapt The Wind In the Willows when Disney executives asked him to give Toad a skateboard and have him frequently say “radical dude”.) So how does Roald Dahl’s very English tale of foxes and farmers fare in the hands of quirky American auteur Wes Anderson?
Well, it’s a patchwork piece that stutters along pleasantly – utterly charming in places with its autumnal design and flickering fur, but also slick and hip (and oh! sooooo American) in ways that the fantastic Mr. Dahl would never have imagined.
Slicker and hipper than most is George Clooney as the voice of Mr. Fox, a reformed chicken-hunter turned newspaperman, compelled (he has a serious case of affluenza) to move into a more up market neighbourhood . Despite a promise to Mrs. Fox (voice of Merryl Streep) that his hunting days are over, when he discovers their new house is opposite the well-stocked farms of Messrs. Bogis, Bunce and Bean, he cannot resist. Along with trusty side-kick Kylie the Opossum, he makes a series of daring raids, filling his larder and raising the ire of the three nasty farmers, led by the notoriously cruel Franklin Bean (voice of Michael Gambon). The humans (baddies and therefore played by English actors) seek revenge, and – in the ensuing and often hilarious battle – put the entire animal neighbourhood in jeopardy.
Rather than stick to this core story, Anderson and his screenwriter Noah Baumbach divert proceedings with the injection of a Fox family sit-com. Along with slick Dad and foxy Mom, we have young Ash (the Fox’s only son and voice of Jason Schwartzman) as an underperforming brat desperate for Dad’s approval, and Kristofferson (the Fox’s nephew and voice of Eric Chase Anderson) as the cool, karate-chopping, vixen magnet who meditates and excels in kung fu and a strange baseball-like sport the animals play. Skateboards are obviously passé.
Created using the jerky stop-motion style of animation (and some truly out of place big close-ups) the film has the gorgeous charm of a made to order antique, but the additional plot-line causes it to strain in length and focus. Let’s admit it, this is no Chicken Run, but an alluring and curious hybrid of Roald Dahl’s rich and dark storytelling and Wes Andersons eccentric and erratic film mind.