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A delight to the eye: Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Vulpine Own Self Be True

By John Rodat

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Directed by Wes Anderson

It is one of the defining characteristics of director-screenwriter Wes Anderson’s movies that his characters are highly self-conscious: In his debut film, Bottle Rocket, a small band of would-be crooks follow an erratic poseur who is actively, if ineptly, scripting himself an identity as criminal mastermind; in Rushmore, the main character doesn’t so much lead a life as frame one, directing himself and those around him; The Royal Tenenbaums is a mass identity crisis; in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Anderson wrangles even the supremely blithe Bill Murray into scenes of affecting self-awareness; and the plot of The Darjeeling Limited is strung along an explicit mission of self-discovery.

So, it’s not so odd, really, that his latest features a fox in an existential crisis.

“Who am I, Kylie?” Mr. Fox (George Clooney) asks of his spaced-out opossum friend. “Why not a horse, or a beetle, or a bald eagle?” Since giving up his chicken- (and duck- , and cider- ) stealing ways at the request of his wife, Felicity (Meryl Streep), Mr. Fox has been supporting his family as, of all things, a journalist. But he is unfulfilled. How can a fox be happy, after all, “without a chicken is his teeth?”

So, Mr. Fox engineers a showdown—which begins as a riff on the “one last job” motif—with the three biggest, and meanest, farmers in his area. This daring raid escalates rapidly, and soon Mr. Fox, his family and the entire community of animals are engaged in a full-on war with the vengeful Boggis, Bunce and Bean.

One of the great delights of Anderson’s films is his eye for detail and the intricacy of his set design. In Fantastic Mr. Fox, that richness is more effective than ever. In his live-action films, some viewers find such deliberate artifice crowded, distracting and twee (I am not one of those viewers, it should be said); in this stop-motion animation, though, it lends an atmosphere that is almost naturalistic.

The voice acting, too, is spot on. In the title role, Clooney wisely eschews the affectations and accents that have marred some of his recent comedic work; Jason Schwartzman (who I am increasingly loath to look at) is excellent as Fox’s seething, oddball son; and a handful of Anderson’s go-to friends and family (Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, non-pros Eric Chase Anderson, Wally Wollordarsky), offer perfect, funny and believable performances.

Yes, believable badgers, etc.

Anderson and cowriter Noah Baumbach worked from Roald Dahl’s children’s novel of the same name (though there are significant differences, including an alternate ending written and discarded by Dahl). Given Dahl’s habitual style, some grisly scenes might be expected; indeed, one woman in the post-show lobby asked, breathlessly, “Did you think that would be so rough?” But neither I nor my 5- and 7-year-old companions knew what she was talking about.

Fantastic Mr. Fox is fun and appropriate for younger audiences (it’s far less violent than, say, the antics of the comparatively unself-reflecting Bugs Bunny); and possessed of enough subtlety and wit (and a Jarvis Cocker cameo!) to keep the accompanying adults from wanting to poke out their own eyes/ears.

Good Intentions

The Blind Side

Directed by John Lee Hancock

Based on a true story, The Blind Side is the uplifting saga of a poor, homeless black kid, a gentle giant named Michael Oher (quiet Quinton Aaron), who is adopted by a caring, Christian, and rich white family. He becomes a star high-school and college football player, and eventually, a first-round National Football League draft pick.

It’s a box-office smash. Everyone loves it—even though it’s ultimately as appalling as it is uplifting.

The uplifting part: the story of how this kid, “Big Mike,” becomes part of the Tuohy family. He’s a huge 17-year-old with clear athletic potential, but that’s not why they take him in. The matriarch of the Tuohys, Leigh Anne (Sandra Bullock), likes and admires Michael for his kindness, thoughtfulness, neediness—what parent can resist a little neediness?—and his protective nature. There are no adjustment problems; despite the casual racism of their friends, the Tuohys do not hesitate to make Michael part of their family.

Bullock is terrific as a brittle Southern Belle who sees only solutions, not problems. She shuns her usual mannerisms, including the self-deprecating clumsiness that tends to undermine her dignity. The rest of the cast is good, too, including a laid-back Tim McGraw (as papa Tuohy) and a hyper Ray McKinnon (as the football coach).

The problem is with the film’s simple-minded approach to, well, everything. The title has a double meaning. As Bullock explains in the opening narration (over footage of a really ugly, legendary football injury), “the blind side” refers to what a quarterback can’t see, and the need for a big, but fleet, offensive player to guard the quarterback. The title also refers to the sheltered Tuohys, who have no awareness of the lives of the poor folks on the other side of town. Writer-director John Lee Hancock has a knack for sports stories; he directed the entertaining baseball flick The Rookie. He can’t get beyond the most stereotypical depictions of anyone, however—and this includes the white folks. The problem arises when the film descends into the world of crackheads and drug dealers, and Hancock leaves any empathy or fairness behind. The film’s framing device is designed to smooth out any pesky nuances, and, almost incidentally, depicts the only credible black authority figure as a complete bitch.

After the happy ending, the film at least sticks to its simple-minded essence in an odd, offensive coda. Narrating again, as at the beginning, Bullock’s Leigh Anne ponders a newspaper account of a murdered youth from Michael’s old neighborhood; the story refers to the young man’s unfulfilled athletic talent, which, it is suggested, might have taken him out of the gangs and on to the gridiron. Given the slim odds of “athletic talent” being a viable ticket out of poverty for the vast majority of poor kids, this observation is worse than a bad joke. It reveals an ignorance—a blind side?—that’s a kind of prejudice in itself.

And the bright side? At least the Tuohys now know where football players come from.

—Shawn Stone


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