Friday, May 1, 2015

Birthday Take: Wes Anderson in "Fantastic Mr. Fox" (2009)

Scene from Fantastic Mr. Fox
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Wes Anderson
Born: May 1, 1969 (46 years old)
Nomination: Best Animated Film - Fantastic Mr. Fox (nominated)

The Take

There's very few filmmakers alive and working who have styles as distinct as Wes Anderson. With last year's highly successful The Grand Budapest Hotel in his roster, he continues to reaffirm that while his style is greatly silly and even at times capable of plagiarism in Saturday Night Live parodies, he is someone with a sensibility that has garnered him attention time after time. Even his slow rise to successful through indie box office records suggests that he's got a following that is forming. There's a strong chance that his most recent film will easily catapult his success with whatever film comes next.

For a man whose style can easily be called cartoonish, it is very bizarre that he has only made one genuine animated film with 2009's Fantastic Mr. Fox. In the familiar style, he unveils his work as being distinguished and against the grain. This time, he does so by making his entire film in the long abandoned stop motion style that only him and Laika Studios have successfully made into a working formula. Even then, the film was such a gamble that wasn't entirely clear if it would work. In fact, it only has the unfortunate habit of opening the same year as Pixar's soaring hit Up. It immediately got overshadowed and would even be beaten by that film at the Oscars.

However, what makes Fantastic Mr. Fox specifically captivating is that its stop motion works in its favor. While the Criterion DVD set concludes a series of classic film references such as Bob Fosse and Lawrence of Arabia that are scattered throughout his visual cues, it feels authentically his. With the format of suspended animation, he could go anywhere and do anything. As a result, his talking foxes were allowed to dig hole and walk their lanky bodies across the sets in phenomenal fashions. It was also typically Anderson with a soundtrack that included a lot of Rolling Stones, The Kinks and Beach Boys as well as featuring his penchant for centered photography and posh outfits.

While the film is a high point in modern animation, it is an interesting and important note that this was also the first time that Anderson teamed up with Alexandre Despalt for a very folksy score. While Desplat would win Best Original Score for The Grand Budapest Hotel, this was the first time that the collaboration made sense. Anderson is twee and Desplat is capable of complimenting it with abstract musical selections. Between the three films that they have worked on together, it has produced three very strong and captivating pieces of music. It is the backbone of the film's personality and gave the childlike wonder of the film its central focus, especially as it focused on familial issues in between economic futility.

Fantastic Mr. Fox isn't necessarily the most accessible kids film to be made. In fact, it may be odd to think of a child enjoying it more than a cinephile invested in Anderson's work. However, for a moment in time one of the most animated filmmakers actually made a film in that medium and produced a classic that is at the height of his powers. If Anderson will end his career with one achievement, it will be in making work that is both distinguished and probably some of the most playful work that is in widely accepted by mainstream audiences. He may eventually fall into caricature, but so far his ambitions have only paid off in very assured ways. Still, this film proved that animation can be done outside of the familiar CG animation and can also produce something that is even awe-inspiring.

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