‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’ proves a shrewd animated heist movie

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‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’

Rating: 3 out of 4 stars

Running time: 87 minutes

Starring the voices of: George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman and Bill Murray.

Andy Bockelman

Andy Bockelman is a member of the Denver Film Critics Society, and his movie reviews appear in Explore Steamboat and the Craig Daily Press. Contact him at 970-875-1793 or abockelman@CraigDailyPress.com.

Find more columns by Bockelman here.

In a year of animated movies, cartoon-makers have to find a way to stand out. And what better way to do so than to bring characters fully off the drawing board with all-encompassing animatronics without the use of expensive 3-D glasses?

It certainly works for “Fantastic Mr. Fox.”

By nature, Mr. Fox (voice of George Clooney) is a master at covert missions involving chicken theft. But it can be a dangerous life, and so at the bequest of his wife (Meryl Streep), he moves into a more cautious line of work as a newspaper columnist, and he and his spouse settle into a burrow to raise their pup (Jason Schwartzman).

But after two years — 12 fox years — Fox needs a change from his safe life. Disregarding the advice of his badger lawyer (Bill Murray) he moves the brood into a tree domicile that sits on the outlying borders of three different poultry farms.

And though Fox is happy to be back doing what he loves, farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean (Robin Hurlstone, Hugo Guinness and Michael Gambon) aren’t about to let the four-legged thief get one up on them.

With his smooth attitude and confident voice, Clooney always has had a vulpine quality throughout his career, and now he finally has the ideal role in which to best use his talents. Fox’s trademark whistle and click is a habit the actor should take up for the red carpet.

Streep provides a silky intonation as Fox’s vigilant vixen Felicity, who doesn’t want a fully stocked larder to mean risking the health of her family. And she’s not afraid to slash at someone when she’s angry.

Characterized as “one fat, one short, one lean,” the foul fowl farmers in question have surprisingly less to say than their animal quarry.

Well, walking blimp chicken farmer Boggis — who personally consumes a dozen hens every day — and tiny duck and goose man Bunce — who can’t touch the floor while keeping his head above water in any swimming pool in the world — stay silent, leaving much of the talking to be done by Bean, a gaunt turkey farmer whose entire diet consists of cigarettes and his own home-brewed alcoholic cider. Gambon is fine as the nastiest of the three, whose malice comes to an apex when he fashions Fox’s severed tail into a necktie.

Schwartzman is outstanding as the sullen Fox son, Ash, a diminutive fellow who hates being different — although wearing a cape all the time doesn’t help his cause — and longs to live up to his dad’s good name as an athlete.

Unfortunately for him, he’s constantly outshone by his contemplative cousin Kristofferson, well-voiced by Eric Anderson, brother of the film’s director/co-writer Wes Anderson, who fills out the cast with former associates, such as Willem Dafoe, Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Roman Coppola and Wallace Wolodarsky, who’s just delightful as the Fox family’s soft-spoken opossum handyman, Kylie.

Anderson’s fans indubitably will appreciate his newest movie. Why? Because it has the exact same kind of characters as every one of his other films.

If you loved Schwartzman in “Rushmore,” you’ll love him here. Correspondingly, if you hated Dafoe in “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” your tune won’t change, although his accent switches from German to a Southern drawl as a rat named Rat, who guards Bean’s cider distillery.

Anderson’s characters aren’t badly written by any means, but they all have the same personality across his resume.

Yet, in adapting Roald Dahl’s children’s book for the screen, he allows for a change of scenery with amazing stop motion animation by Mark Gustafson. Besides depicting a glorious autumn backdrop with hues of red, orange, yellow and brown, the look and movement of the animals and humans is as expressive and three-dimensional as any live action movie.

Other than the subjective disgruntlement of Anderson not taking chances with his work, “Fantastic Mr. Fox” still excels. Maybe it’s the all-purpose euphemism “cuss” or the spectacle of watching the woodland critters play their invented sport Whackbat, but either way, there’s something about it that shines.

If only I could think of the perfect word to describe its quality…

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