Monday, February 17, 2014

Fantastic Mr. Fox: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review

Reviewed by Sean Ferguson
Fantastic Mr. Fox is the story of a clever, quick, nimble, and exceptionally well-dressed wild animal. A compulsive chicken thief turned newspaper reporter, Mr. Fox settles down with his family at a new foxhole in a beautiful tree directly adjacent to three enormous poultry farms - owned by three ferociously vicious farmers: Boggis, Bunce, and Bean. Mr. Fox simply cannot resist. This adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s novel from Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums) is a meticulous work of stop-motion animation featuring vibrant performances by George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, Willem Dafoe, Michael Gambon, and Bill Murray.
Film (5 out of 5 stars)
Every time I get a chance to review one of Wes Anderson's films, I'm always happy to do so because they are always funny, quirky, and completely original. Anderson's track record of creating original stories is kind of a trademark for him, especially when they turn out as good as Rushmore or The Royal Tenenbaums to just name a few. But for the first time, for Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson decided to direct a movie that didn't originate from him as it was based on the book by Roald Dahl. Anderson and his co-writer Noah Baumbach did adapt the story with their own signature wit and whimsy.

This is the tale of one Mr. Fox, a talented chicken thief and all around bon vivant who is forced to give up his profession when his wife Felicity (Meryl Streep) demands that he quit when she becomes pregnant. Two years go by (twelve in fox years) and Mr. Fox is restless and frustrated with his life. The Foxes are living in a hole with their moody son Ash (Jason Schwartzman) and the only one that happy is Felicity. Mr. Fox is now a newspaper columnist and longs for the life he believes he should have. As he says, "I don't want to live in a hole anymore. It makes me feel poor." 

Despite the objections of his lawyer Badger (Bill Murray), Mr. Fox buys a new tree for the family to live in and ignores the fact that it's in a much more dangerous area because it's near the three biggest and meanest farmers - Walter Boggis, Nathaniel Bunce, and Franklin Bean. His new proximity to these farms proves irresistible to Mr. Fox who along with his new friend Kylie (Wally Wolodarsky) resumes his life of crime. Not long after their move, Fox's nephew Kristofferson (Eric Anderson) moves in with them because his father is ill. That causes friction with Ash who is jealous of his cousin who seems to be better than Ash at everything.

Mr. Fox proves so good at robbing the farmers that they join forces to kill him. They camp out near the family's tree to ambush him and they almost succeed as they shoot off his tail before his family and him escape by digging a tunnel away. Determined to catch him, the farmers get digging equipment and start to destroy the forest during their zealous search. Because of that, all of the animals are put in harm's way and rightly blame Mr. Fox for their troubles. Mr. Fox soon realizes that his grandstanding has jeopardized all of them and that the only way that they can beat the farmers is to band together to fight back.

Fantastic Mr. Fox is a modern day classic if you ask me. It's a movie that the entire family can enjoy but I think that it's geared more to adults than kids but everyone can enjoy it because it works on so many levels. Kids aren't going to understand Mr. Fox's existentialist struggle or most of the witty jokes, but they can appreciate the visual gags and the rest of the humor. The cast assembled for this is the ideal dream team for these characters and they add a lot to the film's appeal. The stop motion puppetry is very good and the attention to detail for the background and props is amazing. I also really enjoyed the soundtrack for the filming because of its eclectic selections that includes The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones, and even the song "Love" from Disney's animated Robin Hood (starring another fox), but also because the songs all work so well with the visuals. This is a very funny movie with a ton of quotable lines that I've restrained myself from using so as to keep it fresh for any readers that haven't seen this original masterpiece. If you haven't seen this movie yet, you really need to check it out. 
Video (5 out of 5 stars)
This 1080p (1.85:1) transfer is a new one created for this release that was approved by director Wes Anderson and it looks fantastic (no pun intended). This presentation really delivers the sharpness that the movie deserves considering how much effort when into the minute details of the backgrounds, character models, and the miniature props. You can see every whisker and tuft of fur on these puppets and the detail on display is very impressive. Colors look vibrant and well delineated and the black levels are strong and as inky black as they should be while the contrast level is spot on. This new transfer is well worth the cost of upgrading to this new Criterion version. 
Audio (5 out of 5 stars)
Fantastic Mr. Fox's DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is also a superb effort that really brings this world to life. Despite a lot of the dialogue being recorded out in nature to make it more fresh and naturalistic, it is clear and clean sounding and every nuance and instance of the actors' comic timing was faithfully captured and delivered in this mix. The rear channels offer some great cross channel activity that is both accurate and effective. The various songs included in this film as well as the score all sound incredible and well balanced with the rest of the sound mix. This is an excellent and immersive mix that delivers on every level.
Extras (5 out of 5 stars)
Not that this should surprise anyone, but this Criterion Collection edition pulls out all of the stops for the extras as they always do. There's a nice focus on both the making of the movie and also on the author of the book that the film is based on. I would have preferred more focus on the movie, but it's nice to see the obvious respect that both Anderson and Criterion have for Roald Dahl. All of these extras are in high definition with the exception of "Witches Tree."
  • Commentary - This commentary track by director Wes Anderson was recorded in 2013 so although the experience of making the film wasn't as fresh, it does offer him some more perspective while talking about the movie. Not that you'd really know it's been awhile since he seems to remember it all remarkably well. Anderson talks about the animation process, the actors, his approach, and more. 
  • Introduction - This is a stop motion introduction to the movie from "Petey" (Jarvis Cocker), welcomes us to the movie and sets up the opening scene of the movie for us. 
  • Animatic - For the super hardcore fans of animation, this is the entire movie shown entirely though animated storyboards with voice-overs. As cool as this is, I'd prefer just to watch the completed film.
  • The Making of Fantastic Mr. Fox - This is my favorite extra on this set as we get a seven part featurette that runs a little over thirty minutes long that covers the making of the film in great detail. We get to see some footage of George Clooney and company rolling around outside while delivering dialogue, some early puppet and animation tests, a look at the art and animation departments, some time-lapse footage showing the animation process works in high speed, and a look at the incredibly detailed sets, characters, and props. I wish there was a "play all" option but these extras collectively provide a wealth of information about the making of the film.
  • Roald Dahl Reads Fantastic Mr. Fox - This is an almost hour long recording of the author reading his own book which is a nice touch. 
  • Awards Speeches - This is another nice extra to include as we get to see the animation that was produced to be shown during award shows, including Anderson's Special Filmmaking Achievement award win at the Nation Board of Review.
  • Set Photography by Ray Lewis - A selection of fifty pictures have been included.
  • Publicity Featurettes - Over thirty minutes long altogether, these six short featurettes focus on the making of the film and their ties to the original novel. We hear from the cast and crew from the movie, especially Bill Murray who takes the viewers along for a trip to see the animation facility where the movie was made. 
  • Sony Robots Commercial - A stop motion commercial for Sony that was directed by Anderson.
  • Discussion and Analysis - This extra is the one where you have to wonder who made the decision to include it as its entire purpose is to let two kids, Jake Ryan and Jeremy Logan, try to explain the meaning of the movie and why it worked as well as it did. If Criterion really wanted this kind of analysis, I'm not sure why they used two kids but maybe because they look at it more as a kid's movie that adults can enjoy instead of holding the opposite view as I do. 
  • Fantastic Mr. Dah - At over an hour long, this featurette pushes the total time spent on the author over the film itself which I think it is a shame. But if you are a Roald Dahl fan, then you may still be happy as this featurette is pretty comprehensive. This television special covers Dahl's career by using footage from his various talk show appearances and from comments from his supporters as well as a look at the opening of the Roald Dahl Museum.
  • Witch's Tree - This is a short clip of Dahl enjoying nature while he discusses the influences that help create "Fantastic Mr. Fox."
  • Dahl's Manuscripts - Here are eighteen pages of the early draft of "Fantastic Mr. Fox" and also a look at the correspondence between Dahl and his editor Fabio Coen.
  • Booklet - A booklet featuring a new essay; a 2002 article on Dahl’s Gipsy House by Anderson; White Cape, a comic book used as a prop in the film; and drawings, original paintings, and other ephemera
  • One Blu-ray and two DVDs, with all content available in both formats
Summary (5 out of 5 stars)
I love this movie plain and simple. In fact, I would love to watch it again even though I just watched it as it's that good. It's got a brilliant cast, a very funny script, fantastic animation, and some great music. It also benefits from the painstaking care that the Criterion Collection always provides for their releases as the video, audio, and the extras are all amazingly good. This is a super easy movie to recommend and it's now one of my favorite Criterion releases too!

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