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Enlightening, witty 'Fox' highlights holiday movies
Mr. Fox, voiced by George Clooney, left, and Mrs. Fox, voiced by Meryl Streep are among the witty — and accessible — characters in “Fantastic Mr. Fox.”
‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’
Starring: The voices of George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Michael Gambon, Willem Dafoe, Owen Wilson
Rated: PG for action, smoking and slang humor
Running time: 87 minutes
Bottom line: First potential classic of 2009

Characters in Wes Anderson’s movies (“Rushmore,” “The Royal Tenenbaums”) constantly ponder their circumstances in existential terms. They relate the failure or success of the moment to their identity and often speak as if they know precisely where they are in the story we’re watching.

When it’s time for a heroic pep talk, for instance, the character delivers it as if he knows his role in the situation is just that — a role. This hyper-awareness infuses Anderson’s movies with a wit and irony that sometimes makes the whole affair jaded and cold.

Not so with “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” which showcases Anderson at his most charming and accessible.

Whereas his “Life Aquatic” was so thoroughly considered that it loses its energy, this adaptation of a Roald Dahl book never loses the spirit of great children’s literature — even though many children won’t fully comprehend its story.

This stop-motion animation tale centers on a patriarchal fox (George Clooney) facing the self-doubts of middle-age. He has suppressed his true fox instincts, particularly the compulsion to steal meals from nearby farmers, to become the family man he needed to be, and now he needs to rediscover himself.

Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) appreciates the security of their lifestyle yet quietly signals her own restlessness by painting storms, tornadoes and other ominous meteorological events.

Their son Ash (Jason Schwartzman), meanwhile, feels underappreciated as he repeatedly fails to emerge from his father’s athletic, charismatic shadow. Ash’s anxiety peaks when his handsome, incredibly agile cousin, Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson), comes to stay with the family while his own father recovers from double pneumonia.

Obviously, “Fantastic Mr. Fox” isn’t standard kid fare. Yet it projects a childlike earnestness and heart. This movie blends cuddly cuteness, urbane wit and silly ferocity in a way no film ever has.

In one scene, Mr. and Mrs. Fox disagree over his idea to move into a plush property inside a tree. Mr. Fox tenderly places his hand on his wife’s shoulder and bears his heart: “Honey, I’m 7 non-fox years old now, my father died at 7½, I don’t want to live in a hole anymore.” The moment bleeds the vulnerability and fear every human experiences when acknowledging our own shortcomings and mortality.

He then lowers his eyes to the plate of food before him, pauses a beat, then tears into his dinner with clawed hands and bared fangs, just like the wild animal he really is.

The film plays more like “Rushmore” and “The Royal Tenenbaums” than “The Fox and the Hound.” After Mr. Fox steals from three incredibly mean farmers, the human villains use an array of weapons to try to kill the foxes. But Mr. Fox isn’t a harmless victim, either. His nature is to hunt. More than once, we see Mr. Fox carrying a dead bird in his mouth.

Violent death is a visible possibility in this movie, so be sure your children are mature enough to handle that.

However, children aren’t the target audience anyway. This movie is mostly about a middle-aged fox struggling with an identity crisis.

The teen characters face similar anxieties. Young children might miss the whole point, not to mention the jokes.

No one will miss the appeal of the low-tech animation, though. The models, sets and props are all hand-crafted like the holiday classics we watch this time of year.

Yet Anderson and his team also did something novel. They recorded the sound “on location,” so to speak. Animators usually record dialogue and sound effects in a studio, but here, if Mr. Fox speaks while standing in a field, the filmmakers recorded Clooney in a field.

The animation and location sound magnify the film’s charm and lend it a unique, timeless quality.

It’s dangerous and a cliché to christen something an “instant classic,” but “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is one of the few films this year that we might be watching 30 years from now.

Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.