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Trip the Dark Fantastic 

Anderson’s animated retelling of Roald Dahl’s story isn’t fluffy or cute, but it’s utterly real

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I was so astonished by Fantastic Mr. Fox that I realized that I needed to read Roald Dahl’s book before I could even begin to get my head around Wes Anderson’s extraordinary movie. Was it merely that Anderson was standing on some astonishing shoulders? Or was he standing on astonishing shoulders and then bulked up with some astonishing shoulders of his own?

Did Dahl invent this notion of Mr. Fox (the voice of George Clooney), settling down from his felonious thieving of the local farmers’ fowl at the request of his wife, Mrs. Fox (the voice of Meryl Streep)? Did Dahl invent the notion that, years later, he might seek to return to his life of crime? Is it down to Dahl that Mr. Fox has a lawyer — Mr. Badger (the voice of Bill Murray) — and that he needs a lawyer because, come on, no one wants to get into real estate and take on a mortgage without someone looking out for you? Did Dahl write dialogue that included frequent substitutions of vulgarities with “cuss,” as in “Why the cuss didn’t I listen to my lawyer?” As it turns out, these things have no place whatsoever in Dahl’s story. Director Wes Anderson and his co-screenwriter Noah Baumbach looked at a sweet-and-sour children’s story through a peculiarly skewed eye and said, this can be so much more. And they turned it into something touching and funny, and magically absurd and at the same time pointedly real. They turned it into something genius.

Their Fantastic Mr. Fox is like Ocean’s Eleven made by Nick “Wallace and Gromit” Park, a cartoon suitable for grownups and children alike, shrewd and witty in both its style and substance. Some of the sharpest, most observant dialogue of the whole year is in this script: “I enjoyed it, but I shouldn’t have done it,” says Mr. Fox about his return to crime. Some of the most striking and most unexpected visuals in ages are here, charming and off-kilter imagery that makes it feel utterly authentic. It’s in how the lack of fl uffy cuteness in Anderson’s stop-motion-animated characters makes them characters you can really love — even when they’re frustratingly complicated and contradictory and just confi dently themselves — instead of something to “awww” over. It makes it easy to share their exuberance and their dissatisfaction and their disasters and their triumphs.

It’s in how Fantastic Mr. Fox is perfectly, deliciously odd, and just plain perfect.

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