If Wes Anderson was once offered an interior design scholarship, I’d say he missed his true calling. The guy has a great eye and can turn any concept into a distinct visual. But, in the name of Andy Warhol, Anderson just cannot tell a story. At times I wonder why he makes narrative films at all, and doesn’t just go work in still photography already. Oh right – because he’s convinced so many that style allows for zero substance.
Occasionally from his work emerges an interesting character study, as with “Rushmore,” in which Max’s brattiness had substance and purpose, or “The Darjeeling Limited,” with its intriguing relationships between three brothers. In the meantime, we have to suffer playtime like “Bottle Rocket,” which delights in throwing the heist tradition into the mud. I’m still unsure which is the grander study in cinematic pointlessness: “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” which convinced me that Anderson holds Bill Murray under some kind of spell; or “The Royal Tenenbaums,” a family drama that tosses drama for human marionettes in trippy set-pieces.
Now, critics galore are fawning over Anderson’s move to animation. Why all the fuss? – the man’s been staging puppet shows for years. In the name of hollow irony – on which too much of “hipster” culture subsists – this filmmaker specializes in filling elegant, multicolored balloons with stale air. In “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” they loom all the more hollow.
Not that Anderson’s foxes and beasts aren’t diverting to watch – at first. They appear to step to some unheard jazz beat, and their fur shimmers in its own little dance. I bet Roald Dahl would have found their design rewarding – right before he’d grab Wes by his ascot and hang him from the floodlights.
I’d say the beasts would make a fine subject for a children’s animated short. But in feature length, they fall short of any purpose. A fine cast – perhaps Anderson’s greatest trick – once again appears, and I’d guess that George Clooney (Mr. Fox), that reactionary activist, signed on as a big F You to the studio establishment. Meryl Streep probably thought it would be a fun stunt, while Murry is still mesmerized. As for Willem Dafoe, that talented enigma of a performer, his involvement in von Trier’s “Antichrist” leaves a universe of questions unanswered.
Anderson passes humor so dry it makes Norm Macdonald’s standup seem like honey. The animals are often caught in a stare as if they, too, are looking for the tale that Anderson forgot. If you are curious about the plot’s details, in which Clooney’s Fox strives to chicken-theft, consult any Anderson narrative that blindly walks characters through running time. As Zissou escapes pirates and the Tenenbaum’s doggie goes splat, so does this film progress, haphazardly and amusing to only its creator.