Unmistakably the work of the exacting, eccentric mind behind Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Darjeeling Limited, Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox is a joy from beginning to end. Opening with a shot of Mr. Fox on a hill beneath a great tree, listening to "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" on his Walk Sonic (the Walkman of the fox world) as he waits for his lovely wife to appear, the film ranges over a wide swath of English farmland and country villages. Its hero is voiced by George Clooney - a fitting choice, because, like the star's Danny Ocean, "Foxy" is a bit of a bounder, a restless soul that needs a caper, a heist, to let him know he's alive. It's in his blood.
In fact, the voice work is universally stellar: Meryl Streep as Mrs. Fox, a patient (to a point) and perceptive spouse who speaks her mind and paints striking, though troubling, landscapes; Jason Schwartzman as Ash, the Foxes' sulky son; Eric Anderson (Wes' brother) as the visiting cousin, Kristofferson, whose athleticism and good looks pose a threat to Ash. And Bill Murray, as Badger, a financial adviser, getting into a "cussin' " match with Fox over the viability of a piece of real estate.
Fantastic Mr. Fox presents a sublime example of what can be done with this painstaking, old-school form of animation (the same technique that brought the original King Kong to life, and that keeps the British duo Wallace and Gromit going). The beautiful anthropomorphic animal puppets - and a trio of menacing human puppets, too (Fox's arch-enemies, the farmers Boggis, Bunce, and Bean) - inhabit a whimsical diorama of old-fashioned cars, motorbikes, and domestic accoutrements. The film has a three-dimensional quality, a sense of movement and depth, that's at once wholly artificial and wholly inviting.
But Fantastic Mr. Fox is more than just a terrific kid flick, a whimsical fable brought to life. Fox wrestles with existential dilemmas. "Who am I?" he mulls. And why is he here? Fox is struggling to reconcile his wild animal nature, his innate restlessness, with the refined pleasures of life - the companionship of loved ones, the coziness of a warm home, the satisfaction to be gleaned from a book or a song (Burl Ives, anyone?).
And speaking of satisfaction and song, Anderson spins the Rolling Stones' "Street Fighting Man" at the perfect, and perfectly unexpected, moment. Mixing vintage tunes by the cider-throated Ives with the Beach Boys, Jarvis Cocker, the jazz of Art Tatum, and Alexandre Desplat's stately orchestral passages, the soundtrack of Fantastic Mr. Fox is itself a quirky little gem.
In its swift, sublime 87 minutes, Anderson and his cowriter, Noah Baumbach (Margot at the Wedding), have taken the gist of Dahl's slim volume and expanded it into a sometimes funny, occasionally scary, always enchanting adventure that really, when you come down to it, is about the challenges all of us face in life.
We might not have to extricate ourselves from an animal trap, or lace a blueberry with sleeping powder to deal with a menacing hound dog, but there's still plenty to relate to here. Fantastic Mr. Fox is beyond fantastic - it's the best animated film of the year, and maybe the best cussin' film, period.
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/