Wes Anderson’s stop-motion-animated Roald Dahl adaptation is one for the auteurist in us all: Newspaper-columnist-cum-chicken-stealer Mr. Fox (Clooney) dresses like his director, drives his family bonkers like Royal Tenenbaum and even has a Steve Zissou–esque epiphany courtesy of a “Black Power!” fist-raising wolf. The overall sensation is of an artist repeating himself, scaling down his obsessions to empty-vessel miniature—at last, Anderson has made a film that is nothing but a succession of autumn-gold shoebox dioramas.
It’s unfortunate that the result is so unaffecting, especially in light of all the things the director does right. There’s plenty here to thrill animation buffs, and Anderson’s most inspired choice was to record the majority of the actors in scene-appropriate locations (barns, fields, basements), which minimizes the studio-miked disconnect between voices and characters that hampers a good many animated films. Coupled with the often caressingly extreme close-ups of these singular puppet creations—it’s wonderful how the animals’ fur quivers slightly in each frame—there’s never any doubt that we’re in the presence of a precisely conceived world. And that’s the problem. There’s usually a hand-of-God meticulousness to Anderson’s work, but something inexplicably soulful almost always manages to intrude. It’s this aspect that elevates the best of his films, like the section in his underrated India picture, The Darjeeling Limited, in which the brothers stumble upon a drowning village boy and are forced to deal with something horribly outside their comfort zone. There’s no such quality in Fantastic Mr. Fox, which is all hermetically hollow gestures and poses. “That’s what I do,” says Mr. F. when asked about his trademark whistle-and-tooth-clicking salute. All Anderson does is slavishly further the brand.