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Fantastic Mr. Fox: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray + DVD Dual-Format Edition Review

Fantastic Mr. Fox movie poster Fantastic Mr. Fox

Theatrical Release: November 13, 2009 / Running Time: 87 Minutes / Rating: PG

Director: Wes Anderson / Writers: Roald Dahl (book); Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach (screenplay)

Voice Cast: George Clooney (Mr. Fox), Meryl Streep (Mrs. Felicity Fox), Jason Schwartzman (Ash Fox), Bill Murray (Clive Badger, Esq.), Wally Wolodarsky (Kylie Sven Opossum), Eric Chase Anderson (Kristofferson Silverfox), Michael Gambon (Franklin Bean), Willem Dafoe (Rat), Owen Wilson (Coach Skip), Jarvis Cocker (Petey), Robin Hurlston (Walter Boggis), Hugo Guinness (Nathan Bunce), Juman Malouf (Agnes), Brian Cox (Action 12 Reporter Daniel Peabody), Wes Anderson (Weasel), Adrien Brody (Rickity the Field Mouse), Mario Batali (Rabbit), Roman Coppola (Squirrel Contractor), Karen Duffy (Linda Otter), Garth Jennings (Bean's Son)

Buy Fantastic Mr. Fox from Amazon.com: Criterion Collection Combo • Fox Combo Pack • Fox DVD • Instant Video

All it took for an animated film to be released in The Criterion Collection was to have Wes Anderson make an animated film. This week, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson's highly-regarded 2009 stop-motion adaptation of the Roald Dahl book of the same name claimed spine number 700 in a three-disc Dual Format Edition Blu-ray + DVD.

There seems to be little doubt as to whether Anderson is the boutique line's favorite contemporary filmmaker. Fantastic is the writer/director's sixth feature and his sixth admitted into the hallowed, selective series of "important classic and contemporary films."
Typically, Criterion treats old works from long-deceased legends (the likes of Hitchcock, Kurosawa, and Fellini) to their unparalleled restorations and inspired bounties of bonus features. But the company makes an exception for Anderson every time he makes a film. Regardless of distributing studio, critical or commercial success, and the existence of a non-Criterion edition, Anderson's films find a way in. His fourth film, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, admitted to the line on DVD back in 2005, has just been announced for a Blu-ray edition coming in May. That means it's only a matter of time until Moonrise Kingdom and the forthcoming Grand Budapest Hotel join the line.

Moonrise appeared to revive the director's career with its strong critical reception and, perhaps more importantly, its ability to find an audience in theaters. To date, only one other Anderson film has pulled off the latter feat: The Royal Tenenbaums. Like that well-reviewed 2001 dramedy, Moonrise earned Anderson an Academy Award nomination for Original Screenplay. In the eleven years in between those, Anderson's only Oscar recognition came in the form of a Best Animated Feature nod for Fantastic, which it lost to Pixar's Up in one of the category's most competitive years.

Mr. Fox makes a premature toast declaring victory in "Fantastic Mr. Fox."

Neither that Oscar nomination nor the reasonably popular source text nor glowing reviews nor an ordinarily savvy Thanksgivingtime debut were able to secure Fantastic Mr. Fox a large audience in theaters. Many people share Criterion's love for Anderson and none of them do so for his commercial prowess. His quirky comedies are an acquired taste that grow on you with multiple viewings.
That's a most desirable quality for someone wanting their body of work to be chosen for studies, books and retrospectives, but it doesn't do much for the bottom line. Fortunately, that's always seemed of minimal interest to Anderson and studios have mostly been able to forgive him for his commercial losses. His budgets came down following Life Aquatic's box office disappointments. Still, Anderson continues to find someone to distribute his offbeat flicks and distributors who are perfectly okay with his unique, imaginative brand of detail-oriented storytelling.

On a much smaller scale, Fantastic's financial failures mirrored those endured by Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are a month earlier. In that case, though, the innovative Jonze got a $100 million budget and a nearly 4,000-theater count for his children's book adaptation. It opened strong and to favorable reviews, only to plummet on its mainstream-unfriendly presentation. Fantastic didn't even enjoy that brief national attention, barely cracking the Top 10 in its wide debut en route to a paltry, front-loaded $21 million domestically and barely more overseas. Nonetheless, those who did see Anderson's film, either in theaters or at home where adults could avoid the stigma of paying to see animation without the company of a kid, tended to like it a lot.

Why wouldn't they? This is an incredibly easy film to like, even with its mix of elements as disparate as A-list actors, a look akin to old Rankin/Bass specials, indie film style and rhythms, intelligent adult themes, and Dahl's child-oriented tale of talking animals. That all may sound like a recipe for discord, but Fantastic Mr. Fox is quite pitch-perfect. It's funny, it's smart, it's unusual. It's as if Anderson found the script to an unproduced 1970s TV special, applied his and co-writer Noah Baumbach's distinct wit and charm, and was able to persuade stop-motion animators, frequent collaborators, and major movie stars to turn this into a real thing.

That all sounds too perfect and unpredictable for modern Hollywood. It's almost fitting then that this movie struggled to be noticed. It's an endearing underdog you desperately want to recommend to your friends. You'd maybe have a different reaction if this wound up being a blockbuster crowd-pleaser with Happy Meal toys (which the film actually got from UK McDonald's), a film that obnoxious hyper kids quote, or an Oscar winner over one of Pixar's better films. Regardless of how you define "hipster", it's a word that applies to Wes Anderson's fanbase, his appeal, and this movie in particular. Success and hype often provoke contrary reactions; look at how a year has turned perfectly agreeable Best Picture winner Argo into a vehicle for questioning the Academy's tastes. (I'm guilty too; Please, Academy, anything but 12 Years a Slave!) Consolation to Fantastic's commercial floundering is that the film's immense goodwill is altogether unharmed. The film continues to be discovered and rediscovered organically and on word of mouth without anything to taint its many sweet charms.

Boggis, Bean, and Bunce will stop at nothing to rid their farms of Mr. Fox. Ash Fox doesn't get along very well with Kristofferson, his gifted visiting cousin.

I'm tempted to recycle the body of the Fantastic review I wrote just under four years ago, but that hardly seems appropriate since revisiting the film for the first time since then felt like a new viewing. The experience was different and, true to Anderson's form, even more satisfying on this return trip. So, I'll share my thoughts from this viewing and then see if there's anything from the 2010 review worth recycling.

Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney) has given up his life of thieving ducks, geese, and chicken from farms, per the wishes of his wife Felicity (Meryl Streep), a lightning landscape painter. Nowadays, Fox works as a newspaper columnist, though the lure of his old profession still beckons him. Unfulfilled by journalism, Fox moves his family into a large beech tree that happens to be in close proximity to three giant farms. Too good an opportunity to pass up, Fox gets a bandit hat and secretly goes a-stealin' with Kylie (Wally Wolodarsky), a spacey opossum superintendent. They try to make the loot like butcher store purchases, but Mrs. Fox's suspicions are raised.

Her suspicions are nothing compared to the anger that Fox's deft thefts produce inside the three farmers targeted: the short Bunce (Hugo Guinness), the stout Boggis (Robin Hurlstone), and, most of all, the lean Bean (Michael Gambon). They come together to form a unified defense against this threat, which they take drastic measure to eliminate. Mr. Fox and company scurry to stay one step ahead of the bulldozers.

Meanwhile, the Foxes' "different" son Ash (Jason Schwartzman) is threatened by the extended presence of his Kristofferson (Eric Anderson), his athletically gifted, spiritually evolved cousin, who's visiting while his father recovers from "double pneumonia."

Mr. and Mrs. Fox step away from the kids for a tense but scenic conversation by a material deposit.

Despite the medium, renowned source, animal cast, and PG rating, Fantastic Mr. Fox is very much a Wes Anderson film. The director's whimsy, snappy dialogue, and unusual rhythms are on full display.
His fans will recognize that the movie clearly recalls certain moments from every one of his previous films. If you like and remember those films, then you won't mind the déjà vu or feel like he's simply repeating himself. This film comes to be the perfect vehicle for Anderson's considerable talents.

There's his knack for creating sympathetic, flawed characters. There's his appreciation for minutiae defining and developing those characters. There's his ability to assemble a dynamite soundtrack with songs just slightly before his time. This one pulls three songs from the previously off-limits Beach Boys in addition to one from his go-to Rolling Stones, some subtle support from Burl Ives and Disney's Robin Hood, and a tune from The Bobby Fuller Four that closes the film on the right high note. Accompanying those needle drops is a charming Oscar-nominated score from Alexandre Desplat.

Anderson's live-action films are often feasts of cinematography and production design, though they've been criminally underrecognized in those fields. Fantastic offers nothing less. Stop motion is a medium that seems to suit the director perfectly and not just because he dipped his feet in it with the fish Henry Selick animated for Life Aquatic. While CGI wouldn't diminish the writing (as Baumbach demonstrated in his contributions to the much-improved Madagascar 3), it wouldn't have that cozy, old-fashioned charm that Fantastic deserves and gets. Though not the latest and greatest technology, stop motion is a medium full of appeal and creativity. Anderson and his crew use it well. They don't shy from camera movement, scale changes, Anderson's signature head-on centered shots, the color yellow, onscreen text (though Anderson's favorite font Futura gets replaced by Helvetica), or inspired use of the foreground and background. Even an action sequence generates interest, serving as more than just an obligatory climax device.

Clooney and Streep aren't actors you'd think of casting for just their voices, but they each bring a lot of personality, charm and heart to their roles. Then again, Anderson's regular repertory also feels right for the film, from entertaining collaborators (Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe, Owen Wilson, etc.) to personal friends (e.g. Wally Wolodarsky and the director's brother), regardless of fundamentally distant other voiceover experiences (like Garfield and Marmaduke) or altogether lack thereof.

Inevitably given the book's brevity and simplicity, Anderson and Baumbach stray from Dahl's text in a number of ways, but their inventions (from the elaborate game "whack-bat" and specification of "non-fox years" to a chronically rabid beagle, laced blueberries designed to distract, and Mr. Fox's trademark whistle click) are compatible and complimentary. As sacrilegious as it may sound to Dahl lovers, this may be the rare film adaptation to improve upon a children's book.

I think 16 paragraphs is asking plenty of you, so I'll end the body there. Looking over my 2010 take of the film, there are some observations to appreciate, but none I feel compelled to repeat. You can easily find and read that if so inclined.

Fantastic Mr. Fox: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray + DVD Dual Format Edition cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray & DVD Details

1.85:1 Widescreen (DVD Anamorphic)
BD: 5.1 DTS-HD MA (English); DVD: Dolby Digital 5.1 (English)
Subtitles: English
Not Closed Captioned; English Extras Not Subtitled
Release Date: February 18, 2014
Three single-sided, dual-layered discs (1 BD-50 & 2 DVD-9s)
Suggested Retail Price: $39.95
Digipak in Cardboard Slipcover
Still available from Fox as DVD ($14.98 SRP; March 23, 2010), Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy ($24.99 SRP; March 23, 2010), and Amazon Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

Criterion has made ancient films look terrific, so it's no surprise that the 5-year-old Fantastic Mr. Fox gets a flawless second Blu-ray transfer. I don't have the first Blu-ray to compare to, but there's practically no way it could look any better than this vibrant 1.85:1 presentation. As a series of carefully composed still photos, stop motion animated films tend to look glorious and this one is no exception.

The Blu-ray's 5.1 DTS-HD master audio also delights. The dialogue, some of it recorded in unusual circumstances, boasts tremendous clarity and weight. It's complemented but never overpowered by Desplat's score and the tasteful licensed selections.

Petey (Jarvis Cocker) introduces you to this Criterion edition and the film's characters in this brand new stop-motion short. The Animatic gives you the chance to watch the entire film Studio Ghibli style, in animated storyboard form.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

Even for a Criterion title, Fantastic Mr. Fox is treated to an unusually robust slate of bonus features. They begin with an audio commentary by Wes Anderson, recorded last year. From the opening title logos, he brings eccentricity and specificity that distinguish this track from the countless others out there. He also keeps information flowing with no lulls, as he discusses the visuals, the writing process, the licensed and original music,
the voice cast, the vast array of influences (from French New Wave to an afterschool special to M. Night Shyamalan's Signs) and homages ("Magnum P.I."), namesakes, location recording, departures from the text, character movements that'd be impossible in live-action, and drawing from Dahl's real life. Even if you're the type who ignores commentaries, you may find this one worth your while.

The video extras, all encoded in HD though a few limited by source, begin with a new stop-motion short which has Petey (Jarvis Cocker) introduce the film and its characters (1:12).

Next up comes "The Animatic" (1:15:09), which presents the entire film (minus credits) in animated storyboard form, with the final soundtrack presented in Dolby 2.0 sound. It's probably not something you'll want to watch in full, but it would have been nice to be able to watch it with the commentary turned on to spice up a repeat viewing.

"Time-lapse Photography" illustrates the painstaking nature of stop-motion animation, while giving the illusion that the puppets are alive. Puppets of the "Fantastic Mr. Fox" cast inspire British children to sing their hearts out for Alexandre Desplat in "Music."

The Making of Fantastic Mr. Fox is made up of seven featurettes. "Recording the Voices" (7:44) shows us the unconventional ways in which the cast were recorded. "Puppet Tests/Early Animation" (3:53) tests out character, effects and scale-shifting animation. "References for Art Department" (1:31) is a scored slideshow depicting Dahl's house and items in or near it that inspired similar ones in scenes that are excerpted.

"A Visit to the Studio" (10:27) supplies a tour of the English studio where the puppets and sets are created and brought to life under Anderson's supervision. "Time-lapse Photography" (2:23) speeds us through a few painstaking stages in a surreal manner that makes the characters look alive. "Music" (4:54) takes us inside the recording of Alexandre Desplat's score. "Miniature Objects" (1:16) shows off tiny items sculpted for the film, from vehicles to decor to props.

"Roald Dahl reads Fantastic Mr. Fox" (53:23) lives up to its title, setting audio of the author's unabridged reading over a still image of a set from the film. It's a novel inclusion (no pun intended), though you might very well prefer to read the book yourself in print (or digital) form.

This Fantastic Mr. Fox Oscar acceptance speech was not needed, but it's incredibly fun to see. Bill Murray gets a look at the film's creation in "Bill and Badger."

The Award Speeches section preserves three very cool stop-motion shorts created for the 2009-10 awards season. They include a National Board of Review acceptance speech (1:17), an unnecessary potential victory speech (1:22) for the Best Animated Feature Oscar, and a funny Press Statement (0:27) from Mr. Fox, in which he realizes the film is competing for an animated film award.

"Set Photography by Ray Lewis" is a gallery of 50 or so images demonstrating in pleasing detail characters, vehicles and props both on sets and in the workshop.

Publicity Featurettes consists of six topical making-of shorts from production that are carried over from Fox's previous Blu-ray: "Roald Dahl" (2:49), "Adaptation" (6:52), "Puppet Makers" (8:20), "The Cast" (6:25), "Designing the World" (8:04), and "Bill and Badger" (7:35), which hangs out with Bill Murray as he takes in the busy stop-motion set. Covering most of the bases, they offer a fitting blend of on-set talking heads and production footage.

Youngsters Jake Ryan and Jeremy Logan offer a precocious and entertaining Discussion and Analysis of "Fantastic Mr. Fox." Author Roald Dahl is biographied in the BBC's 2005 documentary "Fantastic Mr. Dahl."

A stop-motion "Sony Robots Commercial" (1:01) applies Wes Anderson's distinctive style to an unusual place: a 2012 ad for an Xperia cell phone narrated by a child.

"Discussion and Analysis of Fantastic Mr. Fox" (11:27) subverts expectations of its titles, with two young boys amusingly reflecting on the film. Presumably coached and undoubtedly precocious (one clearly more than the other), the two lads lavish the film with praise (preferring it to the book) while weighing in on surviving without food and Mr. Fox's culpability. The more articulate kid appears to be the same one heard in the Sony commercial, which gives his age as 8.

Probably the set's best extra is "Fantastic Mr. Dahl" (1:01:26), a 2005 documentary created for the BBC's "imagine" series. Covering the life and fiction of Dahl, it interviews the author's widow, ex-wives, friends, children, grandchildren, and regular illustrator. Making fine use of old footage, home movies, and pictures, it paints a full portrait of "Moldy" Dahl, explaining how family misfortunes drove him into a career of writing children's books. This great inclusion also details his wife's challenging physical therapy, his chocolate expertise, and his affair.

Roald Dahl sits up in "Witch's Tree", the giant beech at his Gipsy House estate that was the inspiration for Mr. Fox's home. A New York publisher's specific suggestions as to how Roald Dahl could improve his 1968 manuscript are preserved in this gallery. The DVD's menus are similar to the Blu-rays, only less animated and cool.

The nifty "Witch's Tree" (1:43) shows Dahl sitting in an old beech tree where he told his kids the story of Mr. Fox and considers the character's home.

The gallery "Dahl's Manuscripts" holds pages from the author's picture book-like original 1968 manuscript,

which it follows with feedback from Knopf publisher Fabio Coen and Dahl's response to his input.

As is the Criterion way, all of these same extras also make it to DVD between the near-capacity second and third discs included here.

Dropped from Fox's Blu-ray and DVD is "A Beginner's Guide to Whack-Bat", a 70-second short which makes a scene from the film look like an old educational short. Also lost and disappointingly so is Fantastic Mr. Fox's appealing theatrical trailer.

The Blu-ray's winning main menu visits the film's settings, first with excerpts of Desplat's score and then just with serene sound effects. Adjusting to fill your screen's dimensions, the DVD offers more menus in the same mold, only static and unchanging. As always, Criterion authors the Blu-ray to resume playback and support bookmarks.

Criterion breaks from their traditional clear keepcases to give Fantastic Mr. Fox a Digipak with different cover art inside a cardboard box. Loose inside the Digipak between its three uniquely labeled discs is a 34-page booklet. Lovingly illustrated with stills and behind-the-scenes imagery, it includes three articles in addition to the usual chapters and credits list, transfer information, and acknowledgments. They are: "Vulpine Nature", a short but strong new essay by author Erica Wagner celebrating and analyzing the film in terms of Wes Anderson's canon; a reprint of Anderson's short 2002 New York Times article "Welcome to the Dahl House" about his visit to the author's Gipsy House as part of his inquiry into adaptation possibilities; and White Cape vs. The Blackdog, a comic book created by Christian De Vita as a prop for the film.

Mr. Fox, Kylie and the boys take a moment to face fears and appreciate the beauty of Canis lupus (Gray wolf) that they spot while making their getaway.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

A great presentation of a great film, Criterion's new edition of Fantastic Mr. Fox is sure to be one of 2014's most worthwhile Blu-ray and DVD releases. While I'd want you to see this movie even in a barebones edition, this loaded 3-disc set is far preferable. It's strong enough to recommend even if you don't see yourself buying more than a dozen new releases this year.

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Related Reviews:
Wes Anderson: Bottle Rocket • Rushmore • The Royal Tenenbaums • The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou • The Darjeeling Limited
Adapted from Roald Dahl: James and the Giant Peach • Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory • Matilda
Noah Baumbach: Frances Ha • Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted • The Squid and the Whale • Greenberg
New: The Jungle Book • Free Birds • Wadjda • Beware the Batman: Season 1, Part 1 • Austenland
2000s Animated Films: Up • Coraline • The Princess and the Frog • Frankenweenie • The Incredibles • Ponyo • Cars
Where the Wild Things Are • A Town Called Panic • Marmaduke • Born to Be Wild • The Fox and the Hound • Robin Hood

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Reviewed February 20, 2014.



Text copyright 2014 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 2009 20th Century Fox, Indian Paintbrush, Regency Enterprises, American Empirical Pictures,
and 2014 The Criterion Collection. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.