After watching Wes Anderson's exhilarating animated fable Fantastic Mr. Fox, you'll secretly want to be Mr. Fox. And why not? Perfectly poised and fashionably slim, he's the slickest thing in the countryside, from his minutely tailored suits to the corners of his glib, chicken-licking mouth.
This year at the movies has seen more than its share of memorable animated features, but filmmaker Anderson's adaptation of Roald Dahl's putative children's story — about a clever furry fellow pulling off the proverbial one last job — is something special. Its stop-motion animation is so lifelike and hyper-detailed, you'll probably need to see it more than once. The screenplay, by Anderson and frequent collaborator Noah Baumbach, captures the precise mixture of youthful, top-of-the-world cockiness and grim, clammy dread that differentiates the stories we keep with us for the rest of our lives from the ones we forget about overnight.
The character acting is an elaborate two-parter. First, there are the amazing puppets designed by Anderson and fabricated by Mackinnon & Saunders, the English company that also worked on Coraline, Corpse Bride, and Chicken Run. But then comes Anderson's blue-chip cast of voices: George Clooney as Mr. Fox; Meryl Streep as his wife, Felicity; Jason Schwartzman as his son, Ash; Anderson stalwart Bill Murray as Badger the lawyer; Eric Chase Anderson as Mr. Fox's athletic nephew, Kristofferson Silverfox; Willem Dafoe as Rat; and Owen Wilson as Coach Skip. Actors Michael Gambon (in the role of Bean), Robin Hurlstone (Boggis), and Hugo Guinness (Bunce) portray the three mean farmers whose chicken roosts and larders represent a challenge Mr. Fox just cannot resist.
The idea is that Mr. Fox, semiretired from raiding henhouses and now the author of the "Fox About Town" column in the local alt-weekly, is driven to return to his old profligate ways, partly out of pride but also because he's annoyed that his family's home life is constantly being disrupted by angry humans. "I don't want to live in a hole anymore," declares Mr. Fox. Time to get back to work. Fox and his friends will plunder Boggis, Bunce, and Bean's insanely well-guarded farms for the sport of it.
When the farmers lash back ferociously (they're voiced by English actors, the animals by Americans), Fox takes it in stride. After all, as a varmint he's been hunted and hounded his entire life. No point getting bent out of shape about that. Fox is an outlaw by choice, not by necessity, and his transgressions are driven as much by a sense of fun as by hunger. He, Kristofferson, and misunderstood son Ash never stop playing fox tricks on each other. The whack-bat games, flaming pinecones, and terrible tractors pop up incessantly.
Fantastic Mr. Fox is smart and handsome enough to trigger an Andersonian critical mini-revaluation. It's as if in this whimsical expansion of Dahl's animal story, Anderson has finally discovered the ideal vehicle for his quirks. All those overly declamatory preppie characters, full of righteous fury and bruised sensibilities, who got on our nerves in Rushmore and The Darjeeling Limited have now been transformed into otters, weasels, and beavers. What a relief to be able to look at a muskrat, for instance, instead of Owen Wilson's face.
The story, splendidly slender and ripe for interpretation, is probably better enjoyed on the eye-candy level. Dapper shopaholic Anderson, famously a collector of thingamabobs, fills every conceivable space with bric-a-brac. His customary needle-drop music-track playlist is in tip-top shape, heavy with Burl Ives for the rural-ness, but also boasting Georges Delerue, Art Tatum, the Beach Boys, the Bobby Fuller Four, and "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" by the Wellingtons — retro with a vengeance. The "cuss" dialogue placeholders — as in "What the cuss?" or "Cluster-cuss" — are also an inspired touch. But what really thrills us in Anderson's foxy bedtime story is the notion that some spirits are just plain untamable. Stealthy, unflappable Mr. Fox is a rebel without a tail.
With the costumed epic Red Cliff, celebrated Hong Kong and Hollywood action director John Woo (he made Mission: Impossible II, Face/Off, and The Killer, among many others) wanders into unaccustomed turf. The cast-of-thousands battle wagon — reportedly the most expensive film ever produced in Asia — is one of those sweep-of-history projects that will probably mystify those unfamiliar with the Chinese national legend. For American auds, sorting out the third-century-CE struggles between the Northern Chinese Han dynasty and the warlords of the South is a little like asking an audience in Wuhan to appreciate the difference between Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant. Better to focus on the sword fights and cavalry charges, of which there are many.
Hong Kong superstar Tony Leung Chiu Wai, star of Woo's Hard Boiled, plays Zhou Yu, a Southern warrior chief in league with Sun Quan (Chang Chen) and Liu Bei (You Yong) against the invading armies of General Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi). Centerpiece of the two-and-a-half-hour pic is a magnificently choreographed naval battle at the title locale, complete with fire catapults, interlocking ships, espionage, a typhus epidemic, furious storms of arrows, and more kung-fu than the last dozen HK cop flicks combined. It's noteworthy that women play key strategy roles in the conflict, especially one Xiao Qiao, played by Chiling Lin. All of the above return in the sequel, Red Cliff II, which is probably available this afternoon on DVD for five dollars in Chinatowns everywhere.
Nothing hard to fathom about Ninja Assassin. Director James McTeigue's slice-and-dicer focuses on Raizo (played by South Korean pop singer Rain, aka Jung Ji-hoon), a steely young man who rebels against his ninja clan over a female Europol agent named Mika Coretti (Noamie Harris), occasioning rivers of blood but only a trickle of believable action.
Nice to see Eighties/Nineties action hero Sho Kosugi (Nine Deaths of the Ninja, Pray for Death) finding work as the lead bad guy, Ozunu of the Clan of Black Sand — but that doesn't excuse the awful writing ("Let this death be remembered for a thousand years!") in this meathead exercise. It's like a Tom & Jerry cartoon with realistic opened arteries instead of comical toon injuries. Raizo sets a world record for scar tissue as he depletes the world's ninja supply by two-thirds, pausing only to engage in sweaty bare-chested calisthenics. Once upon a time, McTeigue made V for Vendetta, a thinking-person's revenge melodrama. He's paying for that with Ninja Assassin.