I waited forever for this movie to come along. Not even this movie, really, but a movie like it: something to grab mainstream America by its multiplex and make it see that Pixar and its ilk are not the only game in town, splashy hyperrealism not the be-all end-all in animation. Cuss Wall-E and its "message," man: I wanted something to give me those same narcotic tingles I got from my first glimpse of Yukon Cornelius and the Abominable Snowman or Ray Harryhausen's battling skeletons, the process clear to even a 7-year-old.
For ages I'd been ranting that digital animation is due for a backlash, that technological advances have far outstripped any corresponding advances in originality or imagination in anything beyond the visuals, that vast realms of analogue technique await rediscovery. When the time was right, went my jeremiad, traditional stop-motion animators would rise up, defenestrate Wall-E and The Incredibles (any good upheaval starts with a defenestration) and reclaim their lost provinces.
Coraline did not provide the spark. It sort of slunk into theaters and back out again, and it lacked name recognition: Director Henry Selick has languished for most of his career in the shadow of Tim Burton, whose "presents" credit on Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride has leapfrogged right over Selick's director credit in the popular imagination. Coraline, however marvelous, lacked the necessary marquee appeal to punch the mall-sized hole in mainstream moviedom that my vision of vindication required. But now: Wes Anderson.
With kids just old enough to press an iMac space bar and grasp the concept of minute adjustments now making animation in their bedrooms, I believe the time has come for my brand of revolution. Stop-motion democratizes animation, moves it out of the realm of motion capture and green screens. Pixar-style animation, whatever its advantages, is completely lacking in that hey-maybe-I-could-do-that spirit. The technology is beyond the understanding—and means—of most people, certainly kids. But those kids fiddling with eyesight cameras and stop-motion software in their bedrooms are learning the very bedrock principles of animation, laws of motion set down mere minutes after the invention of the movie camera.
Think about that. It's the digital revolution that has made this analogue revival possible. For over two decades—between the demise of the Super 8 camera and the very recent introduction of affordable digital cameras and stop-motion software—there was no handy or economical way for folks at home to make stop-motion animation. Analogue video cameras simply didn't have the single-frame capability. Later this month, however, hundreds of thousands more people will own new Christmas computers and digital cameras with the basics of animation built right in. We're talking a mass distribution of creative tools available until just recently only to a select few specialists. And if choppy loops of deskbound knick-knacks are as far as 95 percent of these new iMac owners care to take it, that small percentage of dabblers will surely take things further.
So back to The Fantastic Mr. Fox. How I feel now is at a loss to explain why not only is The Fantastic Mr. Fox not my favorite stop-motion animation movie ever, it isn't anywhere near the Top Five. I would recommend it to just about anybody except small children—not because it's "adult" in a dark or disturbing way, but rather in a subtle, talky Wes Anderson way. I was sure I would love it, but I only liked it, and weakly enough to surprise me afterwards.
Anderson's last two movies have indisputably demonstrated progressively weaker returns on his winning formula: the signature shots, the preoccupation with the artifacts of bourgeois childhood, the British Invasion soundtracks. Minus new plots, he's basically been making the same movie since Bottle Rocket, and by now you either love the routine or you're sick of it. I'm a little sick of it, myself, and I know I'm not alone in this. I no longer look forward to Wes Anderson movies. My cynical side, in fact, sees The Fantastic Mr. Fox as a onetime wunderkind's showy but slightly desperate response to the tepid public and critical reception of his recent offerings. In a blind(folded) test, it would still take you less than a minute to realize you were watching (rather listening to) a Wes Anderson movie. It's the same old thing with an incredible new look: not so much a stop-motion Wes Anderson movie, but a stop-motion version of a Wes Anderson movie.
And just a little too tidy, really. Exactly as expected, the decors and figures and animation are all exquisite and perfectly executed. Yet the stultifying feeling of a changeless, all-pervasive aesthetic that put me off Wes Anderson's movies in the first place has, unfortunately, adapted extremely well to the new medium. I don't know how else to put this: I found The Fantastic Mr. Fox oppressive in its attention to Andersonian detail and tedious for its excellence in the very analogue techniques I'd been longing for, aggravated by the sense they'd only been superimposed on business as usual for this director. That might sound irrational, and maybe it is, but if this is the revolution I've been predicting, we've only switched jailers.
The Fantastic Mr. Fox continues at the Village 6.