In Theaters: Fantastic Mr. Fox
There's something defiant in the charms of Fantastic Mr. Fox, a nose-thumbing mischief that underlies and yet is of a piece with the film's conspiratorial cheer; director Wes Anderson's terminal self-reflexivity here pushes right past the crisis point, accessing a kind of unlikely afterworld of self-self-reflexivity that elevates a pleasant lark into a wry work of art. When, after The Life Aquatic, critics began leveling charges of an increasingly rigid, constrained aesthetic, one that bound his characters up as marzipan players on a self-consciously confected stage, Anderson responded by building a sort of consecrated altar to everything they said was dragging him down, and in the process rediscovered what made his films so fresh and affecting in the first place.
One of the many films he references in Fox -- notably in a moment of triumph -- is the scene featuring the bisected diorama of a giant ship in his own The Life Aquatic, where each character is shown to be ensconced in their deceptively private, self-contained sphere. When Anderson insisted that the diorama be built to scale and the scene shot without CGI enhancement, he seemed to be insisting on something crucial to not just his aesthetic but his personal philosophy: isn't it better this way? Without the tricks?
Strange signals from a hyper-externalist and lover of visual jargon, and yet the tension between showmanship and subtlety is at the heart of Anderson's appeal to a certain cohort of jaded, closet nostalgics who, having come of age after television but before the internet, aren't even sure what they're longing for anymore. Who knew it would also result in one of the smartest, most enchanting kids' films in memory? When he agreed to adapt Roald Dahl's children's classic for the screen, he insisted on not only on stop-motion animation, but a deliberately retro approach to the form that has more in common with King Kong swatting at helicopters atop the Empire State building in 1930 than Tim Burton's cool, plasticine creations.