Friday, March 26, 2010

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Wes Anderson, animation director? Seems like an unlikely job description for the distinctive live-action writer/director, but as it turns out, his foray into the world of stop-motion animation yields considerable rewards. This is also his first full-blown adapted screenplay, and while his film still bears the title of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s novel Fantastic Mr. Fox and follows the same basic plot, it’s really his show all the way.

George Clooney lends his voice as the titular fox, an aging family man grappling with a midlife crisis forcing him to choose between his stable domestic life and the criminal exploits of his youth. He justifies his thieving excursions as his nature, but fails to recognize the consequences when things go awry. He foolishly targets three well-guarded farms for his ill-gotten gains, putting his family and friends in jeopardy when the farmers coming looking for retribution. Sounds somewhat dramatic, but the film is played for comedy for the most part and keeps a fairly light-hearted approach throughout.

If you’re a fan of Anderson ’s work, you’ll be right at home in his new sandbox, but if you’re looking for a mainstream kids movie you may want to move along. There’s nothing really objectionable for younger tots, but the film requires an adult frame of reference to fully enjoy its charms. From Mr. Fox’s midlife crisis to his son’s teen angst to Anderson’s typically atypical pacing and dialogue, the film fits in perfectly with the rest of Anderson’s filmography, which resides nowhere near the Disney/Pixar/Dreamworks animation neighborhood.

Anderson purposely selected stop-motion as his animation medium because of his love for the artform due to its warmth and handmade feel. He made no demands to limit the amount of fur displacement on the detailed animal character models caused by the painstaking animation process, seemingly delighting in their constantly ruffled appearance. His infatuation with the ‘70s continues here, with muted earth tones as his palette and clearly retro technology littered throughout his backgrounds. He also drove his animators crazy with some decidedly live-action shot selection, but the end results appear to deliver what he envisioned. It’s hard not to compare the animation to the pioneering stop-motion work of Rankin Bass or even fellow Dahl stop-motion adaptation James and the Giant Peach, but an even closer comparison is the ‘80s-‘90s work of British studio Cosgrove Hall, particularly their similar “animals in clothes” series The Wind in the Willows and Brambly Hedge. If you have any affinity for stop-motion animation, there’s much to admire here.

The DVD includes only a couple of very brief featurettes on the making of the film, as well as a rehash of a fanciful sport played in the film at one point. Fantastic Mr. Fox is now available.

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Thursday, March 11, 2010


As a general rule, I am diametrically opposed to dubbed versions of foreign films, choosing to exercise my Snob right to view material in its completely unadulterated original form. If the US distributor further decides to edit or alter the original, the end result is a virtual no-starter for me. However, Disney sweetened the pot with their presentation of Studio Ghibli’s latest production, Ponyo, by hiring a top-flight vocal cast and E.T. screenwriter Melissa Mathison for its US script. This improved my assignment to provide a thorough review of my Blu-ray screener, but still left me feeling a bit dubious as I settled in for a viewing last night.

Originally titled Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, writer/director Hayao Miyazaki’s latest effort follows the adventures of a little girl sea creature and the five-year-old human boy she befriends. If that sounds like The Little Mermaid in a junior edition, that’s not an inaccurate description, but it fails to convey the wholly original magic contained in this tale. Much of that magic is derived from the film’s decidedly hand-made feel, as Miyazaki continues in his dogged devotion to traditional hand-drawn cel animation in direct opposition to the popular modern conventions of the CG animation era. Backgrounds are a pastel-painted wonderland with clearly visible brush strokes, while characters are animated in a slow, slightly jerky manner that points to devotion to homemade craft instead of high frame rates. The opening sequence sets the tone for the entire film, as Ponyo’s underwater world teems with hundreds of different sea creatures forming a kaleidoscope of animated wonder. The world above-water is equally inviting, as the humans move through a charming coastal town fully in tune with the beauty of its natural surroundings. Miyazaki ’s master touch delivers an animated world you’ll want to inhabit for long after the film ends.

As for the story, I had some concerns after viewing the original last year as it seemed a bit challenging for mass appeal, with a somewhat creepy and confusing father figure for Ponyo and some unclear motivation for Ponyo’s relationship with her human friend, Sosuke. Although I’m hard-pressed to find any difference in the final cut of the original and US versions, the US dub thankfully tones down the bizarre nature of Ponyo’s dad, a human living under the sea, to make him a more sympathetic figure as he attempts to keep Ponyo protected from the human world. I still had some trouble buying Ponyo’s instant and permanent devotion to Sosuke or their prospects for the future, but keeping in mind Miyazaki ’s definition of this as a film for five-year-olds with their corresponding limited, black and white world view, it became a non-issue as I let myself experience the world from their perspective. It also helped to watch with my completely enraptured 3-year-old daughter as she sat transfixed throughout the film with barely any questions about its progression, apparently because it made perfect sense to her. Miyazaki is right, this is a film for kids, but it’s made with such care and respect for its audience that it’s winning entertainment for the entire family.

The US vocal cast is headed by Tina Fey as Sosuke’s mom, along with Liam Neeson as Ponyo’s dad and Cate Blanchett as Ponyo’s sea goddess mom. Also popping in along the way are Matt Damon as Sosuke’s dad and a golden girl trifecta of Betty White, Cloris Leachman, and Lily Tomlin as senior center residents. The young leads are played by siblings of famous Disney alumni: Noah Cyrus (Miley’s sis) as Ponyo and Frankie Jonas (the bonus Jonas brother) as Sosuke. The cast is uniformly fine in their roles, adding luster to this carefully assembled dub.

Ponyo on Blu-ray is a sight to behold, as the lush colors, inviting backgrounds, and highly detailed character line work combine to form an almost 3D feel that further welcomes viewers into its world. The sound mix doesn’t offer many fireworks as this is a quiet tale without need for bombastic surround effects, but for what it’s worth, the 5.1HD mix allows viewers to experience veteran Ghibli composer Joe Hisaishi’s score in its best possible format. Blu-ray is a great way to experience every nook and cranny of this lovingly-constructed tale and should be the de facto choice for anyone with the equipment and desire to own the film.

The Blu-ray further excels by providing a mind-numbingly expansive selection of bonus features on the production of the film, including interviews with Miyazaki and Hisaishi, as well as interviews with US producers Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy and most members of the vocal cast. There are also features on the location scouting in Japan used as a basis for the film, features on a few other Ghibli classic productions including My Neighbor Totoro, as well as behind-the-scenes footage from Studio Ghibli. It’s a real treat for Ghibli fans and a further indication of the care Disney put into releasing a definitive edition of the film for US audiences.

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