Friday, July 31, 2009

Reasons to be Cheerful: Fantastic Mr. Fox

For my first entry into what will either by a regular feature or a stillborn folly, I have decided to write about my palpable excitement about Wes Anderson's adaptation of Roald Dahl's fabulous novel, The Fantastic Mr. Fox.

I love Roald Dahl. He was the first author whose work I devoured when I was a child and I consider him to be one of the most important writers in my life, the one who opened the door for me to discover the sheer joys of literature. His darkly absurdist novels laid the foundation for me to discover Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman (whose novels Coraline and The Graveyard Book are very reminiscent of Dahl), Christopher Moore and, to an extent, Haruki Murakami. Dahl introduced me to the notion of stories that can be about the most fantastical things, Witches, Giants, Twits, Giant Peaches, that can also be grounded in an emotional reality; would The Witches be as memorable without the connection between the boy and his grandmother? Would the whimsy of The B.F.G. be palatable if it weren't for the mass-murdering horror and bullying of the other giants? And where would James and The Giant Peach be without that horrible opening in which James' parents are eaten by a rhino?

Actually, alongside a love of the written word, Roald Dahl also gave me an inordinately large fear of becoming an orphan when I was a child. I'm sure it must be a concern for most children, but Dahl's books made me absolutely certain that not only would my parents die but that I would be bequeathed to relatives who, despite being loving when my parents were alive, would turn out to be evil as soon as I had finished moving in. Thanks, Roald.

Anyway, lasting childhood scars aside, Roald Dahl could be said to have had a massive effect upon my life, not only as a reader but as a person. It is not surprising then that I have been eagerly anticipating the release of Fantastic Mr. Fox, the latest adaptation of one of Dahl's novels, a project that director Wes Anderson has been working on for over five years at this point and which will finally be released in the U.K. on October 23rd. Though it's not my most anticipated Dahl adaptation, that honour goes to the mooted Guillermo del Toro/Alfonso Cuaron version of The Witches, my hopes for this are still alarmingly high.

As much as I like Anderson (I love The Royal Tenenbaums and like every other film he has made), I was somewhat worried about what he would do with the story. Despite the emotional complexity that he can bring to his work there is a definite archness to his style that can sometimes get in the way of the emotions. This is fine when used merely to cut the treacle whilst still preserving the core feeling, but, as in the case of The Darjeeling Limited, it can prevent the audience from engaging with the characters in a meaningful way. Would he be able to reign that particular foible in, or would it get in the way of the warmth of Dahl's writing?

Well, let's have a look at the trailer, shall we?

On first glance, the film seems to radiate warmth. The colours, always important in a Wes Anderson film, are earthy and inviting, befitting the underground dwellings of the characters. What little we see of the world they inhabit suggests a stylised, heightened reality that fits in with Anderson's style but also seems like the sort of place Dahl's characters would live in, a place that is just a little...odd.

The animation style is a real plus point for me. I adore stop-motion for its physicality, the sense of care and attention that is intrinsic to it, but also because it always feels a little bit rough and unpolished in comparison to either hand-drawn or computer animation. It's a feeling that stems from seeing a thumbprint in Gromit's nose and knowing that there is a real human touch to everything you're seeing. I get the same feeling when I watch the trailer and see that the movements of the characters are just ever so slightly jerky in places. It could put people who are used perfect animation off, but I'm already charmed by the film before the majority of the characters are introduced.

Which brings us to the cast which, this being a Wes Anderson film, features Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, Roman Coppola and Angelica Huston. Alongside these stalwarts, though, we have a mix of Hollywood roaylty in George Clooney and Meryl Streep, British stalwarts in the forms of Brian Cox and Michael Gambon, who voice Boggis and Bean, whilst Hugo Guinness voices Bunce, and some real oddities further down the list, including Garth Jennings (director of Son of Rambow) and Jarvis Cocker (who has also written several songs for the film). It's a diverse cast and although only some of them get a word in edgewise is the trailer, those that do deliver big laughs and suggest that Anderson has managed to coax some fine vocal performances from them.

If there's anything that's wrong with the trailer, it's that it makes the film seem almost too perfect. The cast is perfect, it sets a great tone and, even if it has been Americanised, it looks like it'll maintain the feel of Dahls' novel. Surely it can't be as good as all those ingredients suggest?

Well, come 23rd of October I'll be first in line to see it. Whether it's good or bad, you'll never hear the end of it.