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HE REALLY IS FANTASTIC, YOWZA!

Reel Time
Dale Hill
www.flickwitch.com

            If you've been impatiently tapping your toes, waiting for this year's Charming Holiday Movie to arrive, you can give your pedal digits a rest, because it's here.

            The ways that Wes Anderson's “Fantastic Mr. Fox” will charm you are manifold, but I'll list a few before I cave in to the temptation to run off to the multiplex and see it again.

            First, it's an animated film, taken from a kid's book, that doesn't talk down to kids. Some of the dialogue may have your four-year-old whispering “What did 'e say?” On the other hand, four-year-olds are much more sophisticated now than they were in my day, and the dialogue, by Anderson and Noah Baumbach, has just the kind of sly wordplay that may keep little kids fascinated and running to keep up.

            Next, it's done in stop-motion animation, an old-fashioned technique that has tremendous charm. Think “Wallace and Gromit” for inspired silliness, and some of Ray Harryhausen's more genial monsters for threatening moments. The settings suggest the middle-class 1980s, on a smaller, “Wind in the Willows” scale. But though the characters may represent human archetypes the way Grahame's animals do, they have their beastly moments: witness Mr. Fox consuming his breakfast toast. “I used to steal birds,” he says, “but now I'm a newspaperman.”

            Finally, you've got some of Hollywood's best talent voicing the characters, and some of them you've never even heard of. Meryl Streep is here as Mrs. Fox; oddly enough she doesn't seem to have mastered the vulpine, or Foxish, accent, and instead gives us a straightforward version of a loving but exasperated wife. George Clooney, who has made a career playing charming rogues, is perfectly at home as the voice of folklore's consummate trickster.

            You may have seen Jason Schwartzman in various roles (he was a hilariously feeble Louis XVI in Sofia Coppola's “Marie Antoinette”). Here he's the fumbling-but-feisty twelve-year-old cub (in fox years) who can't do anything right, and who shrinks in shame when his parents wiggle their fingers and say “I guess he's just different.”

            Things don't get any better for him when his cousin Kristofferson comes to stay, voiced by the director's brother, Eric. Kristofferson is one of those smart, talented kids that grown-ups just love and seem to prefer over their own offspring, which sets up some pretty funny, and touching, dynamics in the Fox household.

            The movie begins with the picture of a hand holding up a shabby library copy of Roald Dahl's 1970 book, a quick jab at those Disney openings where the magic-velvet-fairy-tale-book opens in a shower of gold with a chorus singing AHHH.... The Disney references continue as Mr, Fox greets the dawn to a tinny version of Davy Crocket's theme song, only to turn it off, because it's on his personal player.

            The plot turns on Mr. Fox's recidivism. Even after becoming a successful columnist, he can't resist the call of the barnyard fowl that belong to three neighboring farmers. These three are horrible caricatures of humans, and once Mr. Fox resumes his depredations they form a junta bent on the destruction of him and every animal in the neighborhood.

            Of course they have no hope of success, because they're up against the supreme trickster of European folklore. The French, who were originally Germans called Franks, called the fox goupil, but he was so clever they were afraid to call him that, so they started using the apotropaic euphemism Reynart, which was Regin-hart, or Heart-of-Regin, who was the amazingly clever red-haired dwarf who re-forged Sigurd's sword. This is almost more fun than Tolkien.

            The English upper crust, fox-hunters all (the Unspeakable in pursuit of the Uneatable, Oscar Wilde called them) have any number of wonderful songs about the hunt for Bold Reynard, including a few where, in the spirit of English Fair Play, the fox gets away, and at least one where the fox turns into the Devil himself and stampedes the men and the hounds and the horses back to the town.

            In this movie there's even a spiritual instant when Mr. Fox, who has frequently expressed a phobia of wolves, has a numinous encounter with a lone wolf. It's like the rabbits' mythology of El-ahrairah in “Watership Down” – a religious epiphany on the beasts' own terms – and a gasp-inducing moment, even though it's treated almost as a throw-away. Can we get away from our mythology? Not a chance.

            Too much folklore? Pay no attention. Head on down to your local screen for the biggest treat of the holiday season so far. And I'll be the first to tell you about the new Sherlock Holmes movie, which opens on Christmas Day.