Where the wild things are: 'Fantastic Mr. Fox' delivers great message

Special Photo: Fox Searchlight. George Clooney is the voice of Mr. Fox, left, and Meryl Streep supplies the voice of Mrs. Fox in the animated film "Fantasic Mr. Fox."

Special Photo: Fox Searchlight. George Clooney is the voice of Mr. Fox, left, and Meryl Streep supplies the voice of Mrs. Fox in the animated film "Fantasic Mr. Fox."

Fantastic Mr. Fox (PG)

4 stars out of 4

In a year brimming with very good but serious-minded CGI animation ("Up," "Battle for Terra," "A Christmas Carol," "Astro Boy"), the quaint and rough-around-the-edges stop-motion of "Fantastic Mr. Fox" is welcomed cinematic comfort food. Based on the relatively short 1970 book by Englishman Roald Dahl, the movie bristles with rebellion and has an anti-authority undercurrent that will appeal to the troublemaker lurking in all of us.

Rather than craft a ho-hum story about a goody two-shoes protagonist trying to overcome outside evil forces, Dahl's title character (voiced with sly cunning by George Clooney) is battling against conformity and living with the consequences of being a wild animal in a civilized world. He's also the cause of all of his problems.

In its own charming but twisted way the movie espouses individualism tempered with taking responsibility for one's own actions. The earlier in life any child can learn these valuable lessons the better. If a child likes this film — and most will — they will want to own it the day it is released on DVD and will watch it more than a few times. So will you.

Known mostly for "Rushmore" and "The Royal Tenenbaums," director Wes Anderson's specialty is dysfunctional family humor, a calling card he shares with co-writer Noah Baumbach ("The Squid and the Whale"). "Mr. Fox" has plenty of both men's usual mix of angst, tension and satire but these often caustic traits are wonderfully counterbalanced with a subversive joy and childlike wonderment. It's an exceptional contrasting of attitude and style.

The most immediate noticeable feature of the characters is a lack of exaggerated speech and motion. They speak in an unaffected, sometimes deadpan manner that might initially throw off the under-10 crowd a bit. It's eminently clever but never in a snobby or showy way.

No matter how well-written and conceived, no animated movie would be worth our time without a healthy supply of action sequences and Anderson delivers lots of them. With more than a passing resemblance to Terry Gilliam's angular work during the heyday of Monty Python, Anderson and his creative team prefer to show action from a distance. With the exception of some later chase scenes, the action shots are all medium or long range with little to no camera movement. It's unorthodox but quite effective.

At this point you're probably wondering exactly what the story is all about, and truth be told, the less you know of the plot going in the more rewarded you'll be when it's over. It's a family drama, a heist movie and an action comedy rolled together in a non-morality play that is thoroughly unpredictable and rewarding on every possible level.

What you can know is that Fox will charm the socks off of anyone he meets but has a tough time relating to his troubled son Ash (Jason Schwartzman) and is regularly caught when lying to Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep). Fox's relationship with his attorney Badger (Bill Murray) is contentious throughout and the three human characters (all British farmers) would all love to skin him alive (and one gets close).

At one point or another, Fox is at odds with virtually every character and even when we know he's up to no good, we still root for him. He's a self-centered narcissist who recognizes his shortcomings without admitting to them but will go the distance to make amends. His family is his highest priority although it takes him most of the movie to realize it. He's flawed and slippery yet tender and compassionate and will never go down without a fight. He might also be the most interesting and complex character found in any 2009 film. (Fox Searchlight)

E-mail Michael Clark at clarkwriter@mindspring.com.