Dave on film: “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is exactly that

I couldn’t make myself go into the theater and watch the second Twilight movie, which opened to truly amazing box office figures: over $200 million opening weekend worldwide. Still, if you aren’t into an extra helping of teen girl angst and cute boys with no shirts on, you might find that instead going to a family movie is a better option. That’s why this week I’m eschewing the blockbusters and instead reviewing two animated films, Planet 51 and Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Planet 51

If we land on another planet — or back here on Earth — and find something other than what we expect, who is the alien in that situation, the modern day Earthman, or the local? It’s a plot staple of the classic Twilight Zone series and the basis of a lot of films, including the entire Planet of the Apes series. It’s the allegorical mirror of Pogo’s famous “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

This is also the starting point for the lackluster but amusing Planet 51, starring the voice talents of Dwayne Johnson (as NASA captain Charles Baker), Justin Long (as the boy Lem), Jessica Biel (as Neera), Gary Oldman (General Grawl) and John Cleese (as dorky Professor Kipple). It seems NASA has mastered galactic flight and has sent the dashing Charles Baker across the universe to explore an uninhabited, Earth-like planet.

Later we find he’s following the Wall-E- inspired “Rover” probe, which vanished once it landed on the planet, but at the beginning the film starts by showing us an idyllic suburban small town a la Hill Valley in Back to the Future. The setting is mostly the 1950’s (hence the “51” in Planet 51, presumably, because it’s hard to imagine a stable solar system with over fifty planets) though there’s a bit of 60’s hippie bleedover, including a VW van covered in peace slogans and the long-haired teen rebel Glar (Alan Marriott).

With any movie, it’s always interesting to keep asking “why?” as it unspools. In the case of Planet 51, why have it set in a retro 1950s was the one question that stuck with me, and the answer I finally settled on wasn’t the visual style or the fact that we as a nation were wrestling with the possibility of men in space, but that it was during the mid 50’s that the Soviets launched Sputnik and completely changed the Cold War, dramatically escalating tensions and creating a period that was more characterized by fear of “the other” than anything hopeful.

The fear of an alien invasion is unquestionably the zeitgeist of the inhabitants of Planet 51, even as the government has a top-secret research base where alien artifacts are stored. Called Area Nine, it’s an obvious (to adults) riff on the paranoid theories about the U. S. Air Force’s mysterious Area 51. Both are located in the desert: the real one is supposedly in Nevada. In fact, now that I think about it, perhaps the “51” in the title comes from Area 51 after all.

As an unabashed fan of 50s and 60s sci-fi films, most of which dealt with the fear of alien invaders of one sort or another (ranging from The Day the Earth Stood Still to The Thing to War of the Worlds to Invasion of the Body Snatchers), I loved that Planet 51’s residents were similarly obsessed with Humanoids and fanatically devoted to a series of movies all about those scary human invaders who wanted to turn them into zombies, enslave them, and eat them.

There was lots of potential in the voice casting too, particularly the talented Gary Oldman as the forecful General Grawl. It was a chance to have him revisit his memorable (and memorably named!) character Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg from The Fifth Element, but they gave him no space to explore the character and, as with too many of the characterizations in the film, his role was ultimately uninteresting.

This was also the case with John Cleese, a brilliant comic actor who has been focused on his voice, timing, and pacing for decades. As the squirrelly little mad scientist Professor Kipple, constantly roaming around wanting to cut up Baker’s skull so he could examine his brain, Cleese could have had a stand out role and brought much humor. That he doesn’t is the indicator of just what went wrong with Planet 51: talent frittered away, too many sight gags, too much effort spent on visuals in lieu of thoughtful story development.

I suggest you just wait until it’s out on DVD and then rent it – or stream it from a service like Netflix – because it’s not a bad movie. It’s just not worth more than a few bucks to see it.

Fantastic Mr. Fox

In a world of children’s films increasingly characterized by technological accomplishment and sophisticated rendering in lieu of good old-fashioned storytelling (like Planet 51), it was a breath of fresh air to enjoy the stop-motion Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Tapping the considerable voice talents of George Clooney (Mr. Fox), Meryl Streep (Mrs. Fox), Bill Murray (Badger), Michael Gambon (Franklin Bean), Owen Wilson (Coach Skip), Willem Dafoe (Rat) and Jason Schwartzman (Ash), director Wes Anderson has managed to take the quirky children’s story of the same name (by the talented Roald Dahl) and craft an engaging movie that is simultaneously edgy and delightful.

Like Where the Wild Things Are, the story of Fantastic Mr. Fox is deceptively lightweight: Mr. Fox, upon learning his wife is pregnant, swears off mischief and thievery but can’t resist the urge to pull off one more great caper. His nemesis? The three farmers across the valley, Boggis, Bunce and Bean.

Boggis (voiced by Robin Hurlstone) runs a chicken farm, Bunce (Hug Guinness) has a pig farm and Bean (Gambon) has a turkey farm and apple orchard, the latter of which he uses to produce hundreds of gallons of alcoholic cider. They are perfect targets for the sly and savvy Mr. Fox with his incessant plans. What he doesn’t plan on is their aggressive response to the thefts…

Adding to the mix, Mr. Fox’s brother is suffering from double pnemonia and nephew Kristofferson (Eric Anderson) comes to stay with them, pushing out their son Ash (Schwartzman), who acutely feels his inability to measure up to the talents and mystique of his cousin.

The book itself starts thusly: “Down in the valley there were three farms. The owners of these farms had done well. They were rich men. They were also nasty men. All three of themwere about as nasty and mean as any men you could meet. Their names were Farmer Boggis, Farmer Bunce and Farmer Bean.”

In fact, the children in Mr. Fox’s neighborhood had created a rhyme: “Boggis and Bunce and Bean, one fat, one short, one lean. These horrible crooks, so different in looks, were nonetheless equally mean.” They are the perfect foil for the sly Mr. Fox.

Characteristic of Dahl’s work (he also wrote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach, among others), there’s a dark shadow that flits throughout the story, offering up surprisingly adult moments, characters that cuss when they get frustrated, a strained relationship between the self-absorbed Mr. Fox and his son Ash, and even foxes killing chickens (just barely off-camera). I enjoyed it, but was surprised more than once at the language and tone, though it might well pass most children without them realizing what had transpired.

One of my favorite characters, hands down, was Rat (voiced by Willem Dafoe). The Bean cider storeroom guard, I was delighted at the cheesy spaghetti western theme music that accompanied his introduction in the story. Very much the feel of The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, and Dafoe has just the right edge to his voice here to pull it off, even when he’s snapping his fingers and acting for all purposes like a member of the Jets gang fromWest Side Story.

In a dialog that’s held in so many families as the parents begin to face their mortality, at one point Mr. and Mrs. Fox talk about his urge to pull off a caper as a way to reinvigorate his life, even if it brings great danger to the entire family in the form of retaliation by the mean farmers:

Mrs. Fox: “This story is too predictable.”
Mr. Fox: “What happens in the end?”
Mrs. Fox: “We all die unless you change your ways.”

For a children’s film to have this existential subtext is remarkable, and if you’re looking for something with a terrific visual style, witty visuals and dialog, and a story that operates at a number of levels, I’ll recommend you check out Fantastic Mr. Fox. If you’re going to bring children along, an investment in reading the book to them first might greatly help younger ones understand what’s going on too.

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