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The Life Fantastic

Fans will find the formula familiar in Wes Anderson's first animated feature.

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You don't have to be a furry to enjoy many memorable scenes in Wes Anderson's “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” but one that stands out for its comic virtuosity is when the title character (voiced by George Clooney) explores the tree house he's thinking of buying for his family. The house, which serves as a sort of nexus for the movie's plot, is not a tree house in a backyard but an enormous, living tree hollowed into something like a chestnut split-level.

This being a flight of fancy, the first animated one, sprung from the creator of “Rushmore” and “The Darjeeling Limited,” the edifice is more even than the usual house in a tree found in children's fantasy. Fox moves into it out of a literal hole in the ground, kind of like leaving an apartment building to take over an old Church Hill mansion. Fox complains it's not pine. The squirrel sales agent— Roman Coppola, I think, though it's hard to keep all the walk-on critters straight — talks in heightened real estate jargon to describe its amenities as Anderson employs cutaways and voiceover much like the Belafonte research ship sequence in “The Life Aquatic.”
Rife like the rest of the movie with Andersonisms, the scene is capped by the introduction of a possum handyman named Kylie (Wallace Wolodarsky), Fox's future partner in crime, whose eyes slide into dazed spirals at almost any uncertainty, even a minor one, if only (one supposes) because it's so funny to behold. Earlier, Fox's lawyer, a badger (Bill Murray), warns him against the purchase and the two erupt into something you might call a snarlgument. “You cussin' me?” they ask each other. If you crave the most precious movie money can buy, this one has credits that include “Rabbit's ex-girlfriend.”

Ostensibly the story is about Fox's penchant for stealing chickens. He promises Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) he'll go straight, but has a relapse, incurring the wrath of three fox-hating farmers named Bunce (Hugo Guinness), Boggis (Robin Hurlstone) and Bean (Michael Gambon) and Bean's guard rat (Willem Dafoe). The movie is animated using claymation, but otherwise it's wholly a part of the director's working universe, not only full of Anderson-type characters and Anderson-type quirks but also his array of Hollywood friends.

The result is like watching brilliant character sketches and absorbing set pieces fall like confetti at a ball. In fact, the movie's so stuffed with creativity I wondered why, even at the short run of 87 minutes, it began to drag a little. Every Anderson movie feels that way to one degree or another, especially on repeated viewings. “Fantastic Mr. Fox” offers everything Anderson's admirers could want but lacks that very thing that has kept the filmmaker from creating a definitive classic. A supremely gifted fabulist, he doesn't seem as interested in creating stories and characters as compelling in their own right.

No character in “Fantastic” personifies this tendency more than Fox's nephew, Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson), whose very name carries the affected extravagance that imbues Anderson's work. Kristofferson, recently arrived because of his father's strange illness (of course it's strange), becomes a rival to Fox's son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman, from “Rushmore”), besting him at everything, including the local school's popular sport — whack bat, a dizzyingly convoluted cross between baseball and cricket as explained by an unidentified white furry male named Coach Skip (Owen Wilson).

Anderson wrote “Fox” with Noah Baumbach of “The Squid and the Whale,” whose own work is like an inverse of Anderson's, with depressive characters leavened with a touch of whimsy. As much as I admire and enjoy Anderson's output I find Baumbach's much more compelling, and his presence is barely felt.

Maybe it's asking too much of claymation animals to make us care, but “Fox” would seem to be least appealing to children, the intended audience of the source material by “Charlie and Chocolate Factory” author Roald Dahl. “Fox,” never lacking a smart gag or a nice piece of pop music, is as adult-oriented as Anderson movies are Anderson-oriented. The filmmaker certainly should keep making the kinds of movies he'd want to see, but the formula is becoming a little familiar, and more attention to his audience's needs would serve those future endeavors well. (PG) 87 min. HHHII

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