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Movie Review: Toy Story 3 (6/19/10)

Movie Poster: Toy Story 3
Toy Story 3

Directed by Lee Unkrich
Screenplay by Michael Arndt and John Lasseter

Tom Hanks as Woody (voice)
Tim Allen as Buzz Lightyear (voice)
Joan Cusack as Jessie (voice)
Ned Beatty as Lotso (voice)
Don Rickles as Mr. Potato Head (voice)
Michael Keaton as Ken (voice)

CLR Rating: 4/5 stars

Movie Still: Toy Story 3

Jessie (Joan Cusack), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and Woody (Tom Hanks)
in Toy Story 3

©Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Pixar Has Another Winner:
‘Toy Story 3’ Is a Fantastic Family Film

Pixar Animation Studios strutted into the hearts of moviegoers everywhere with the click of Woody’s bootheels and the pew-pew of Buzz Lightyear’s laserbeams in 1995’s Toy Story. Since then, the studio has made nary a mishap (with the possible exception of Cars, which was hit-or-miss but charming nonetheless). The latest addition to the Pixar stable, Toy Story 3, is no different: from start to finish, it’s a near-perfect family film.

Have you ever wondered what toys do when you leave them lying on the floor in the dark? The creative geniuses at Pixar did, and it was good. The world was introduced to Andy’s toys with the first Toy Story. Plush-and-plastic cowboy Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) spouts generic lines like “There’s a snake in my boot” when you pull the cord in his back. Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), a spaceman from Star Command with working wings and LCD lasers, has a voice all his own. A supporting cast including piggybank Hamm (Wallace Shawn), Slinky Dog (originally voiced by the late Jim Varney, replaced in Toy Story 3 by Blake Clark), Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head, Rex the dinosaur, and a trio of claw machine aliens, scuttled, hopped, and sprang into our hearts in the first and second films.

The inimitable, irrepressible toys are back for a third film, and they’re up to all new antics. Lest we forget, fifteen years have passed since the first movie, and little Andy is seventeen and headed off to college. As we all know, when you’re seventeen any reminder of your childhood is an insult, so when Andy’s mom harangues him to donate his toys, he calls them “junk” but secretly plans to keep them in the attic. Things go awry, and the crew of toys ends up at Sunnyside Day Care Center, which seems like heaven on earth…until the toddlers arrive. The toys soon learn Sunnyside isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and plan an escape.

Somehow or other, the animators and writers at Pixar manage to make even the most mundane objects fascinating, lovely, hilarious, and even terrifying. Those of us in our mid-twenties may remember how horrific the Frankentoys from Toy Story were, how malevolent the cruelest child can be through the animators’ lens. Is there anyone who doesn’t find a beaten-up babydoll or a monkey with cymbals creepy? Pixar rides those inexplicable terrors for all they’re worth, and it’s ingenious. Likewise, everyone played with toys when they were small, and there are more than enough recognizable toys to make even the most jaded of us nostalgic. From the spinning arrow of “The Farmer Says” to the paratrooper army men to the Chatter Phone, there are toys here for every generation, and to see them come to life with such realism is terrifically satisfying. Even those who didn’t exactly grow up on the Toy Story films likely find the movies joyous and entertaining.

Pixar’s magic lies in its unfailing ability to fascinate adults and children alike. Toy Story 3 features sequences that will appeal to everyone—filmic techniques reminiscent of ‘80s romance, ‘40s noir, spaghetti Westerns, and classic action movies. Adults will find the homage charming, and children will experience those tropes through new eyes. The toys have to employ numerous Rube Goldberg-style methods of escape—one imagines that board meetings with the production crew were comprised of people wondering aloud, “Now, if you were eight inches tall, how would you make it through two locked doors and over an eight-foot wall?” (Who wouldn’t kill for one of those jobs?)

Toy Story 2 released in 1999, so technology has changed incredibly since that film, but of course Pixar kept up. The toys employ a cell phone to lure Andy to the toy box, Andy’s sister Molly wears iPod earbuds in one scene, and Woody uses an internet mapping program to find his way home. Likewise, Buster the dog has gotten old, fat, and gray, but is still adorable, and Molly and Andy are the same good kids they were—just a little bigger. Plot integration from the past to the present is flawless in every way.

No thanks to James Cameron’s big budget indulgence Avatar, 3D is experiencing an awful resurgence right now. Many films simply shouldn’t be transferred: Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, while pretty and fun, misused 3D; Clash of the Titans was a terrible mistake that never should’ve been formatted that way. Pixar is the one and only studio that gets a pass on 3D: they know exactly how to do it right. Although nothing flies out of the screen at the viewer, as in last year’s Coraline, Toy Story 3’s animation is downright gorgeous. Everything from fibers to hair to grass to pupils looks perfect. Surely we’ve all heard that blowhard at parties elucidating at length why film can’t be art. Next time, tell him (or her) to go see a Pixar film and get back to you.

Without divulging too many details, Toy Story 3 will leave audiences giggling, nostalgic, and even teary, seemingly without effort (though of course production of a Pixar film takes years upon years, so there’s plenty of effort). With the magic of gorgeous animation, lovable characters, witty writing, and snappy, smart editing, Pixar has pulled out another winner: Toy Story 3 is a movie everyone, young and old, will enjoy.

Movie Review: Sex and the City 2 (5/29/10)

Movie Poster: SATC2
Sex and the City 2

Directed by Michael Patrick King
Screenplay by Michael Patrick King

Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie Bradshaw
Kim Cattrall as Samantha Jones
Kristin Davis as Charlotte York Goldenblatt
Cynthia Nixon as Miranda Hobbes
Chris Noth as John James Preston / Mr. Big
John Corbett as Aidan Shaw
David Eigenberg as Steve Brady

CLR Rating: 0.5/5 stars

Movie Still: SACT2

Kim Cattrall as Samantha Jones, Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie Bradshaw, Cynthia Nixon as Miranda Hobbes and Kristin Davis as Charlotte York in Sex and the City 2
[Photo by Craig Blankenhorn]

How the Mighty Have Fallen:
“Sex and the City 2” is a Cringe-worthy, Insensitive,
Headache-inducing Schlockfest

Sex and the City is nothing short of a cultural phenomenon. Unless you’ve lived under a rock for the last twenty years, you are surely at least peripherally aware of the main characters. When cell phones first started to come into vogue, you couldn’t go more than a day without hearing the show’s theme bleeping out of someone’s Motorola. The show, while sometimes vapid and occasionally downright silly, was smart, well-written, and progressive. Its decadence—Manolos, Cosmos, hot sex in NYC penthouses—was pure wish-fulfillment for a generation of American women who could only hope for that kind of frivolity.

The first Sex and the City movie was a gleeful addendum to the series with enough substance to be interesting and enough heart to be fun. The second movie, which released Thursday, is a headache-inducing, culturally insensitive, horribly written piece of trash. The film, set two years after the first, follows our girls Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), Charlotte (Kristin Davis), and Samantha (Kim Cattrall) as they take an impromptu vacation to Abu Dhabi. Carrie’s marriage to Mr. Big (Chris Noth) is growing boring; Miranda’s sexist caricature of a boss silences her at every turn; Charlotte finds motherhood with a full-time nanny to be entirely too stressful; and Samantha’s success as a publicist is tempered by the onset of menopause, which she desperately staves off by taking forty-four hormone and vitamin pills a day. So when Samantha purrs, “We need to go somewhere rich,” who are they to argue?

Abu Dhabi, in case you were unaware, is the “new Middle East” and Dubai is “over.” With its blinding ivory dunes, gold-tipped mosques, and shimmering blue oceans, the possibilities for beauty here are endless. But we’re meant to remember that the loveliest things in the frame are the shoes, the clothes, and the four main characters, so DP John Thomas drops the ball on the scenery, opting instead for decorator porn and an “ooh shiny, diamonds and beautiful cars!” sensibility (because, you know, women love the shiny). In Abu Dhabi Charlotte wrings her hands over her nanny’s ample bosom (it’s okay, the nanny turns out to be a lesbian), Carrie runs into Aidan in a spice market and rekindles that old flame accidentally, Miranda does her best to educate herself on the culture, and Samantha fights off hot flashes after customs confiscates her pills.

The screenplay, written by director Michael Patrick King and based on Candace Bushnell’s books, is truly awful. The puns, one-liners, and chemistry between the four actresses are severely flawed; what used to be witty and edgy has officially gone off the deep end of tacky. Charlotte got Montezuma’s Revenge in the first movie and pooped her pants; in this one she gets camel toe after falling off a camel—hilarious, no? No. “Lawrence of my labia?” Really? And ladies, please stop trying to make “interfriendtion” happen. The girls aren’t homophobic—at the beginning of the film they attend a fabulous gay wedding emceed by none other than Liza Minelli, whose performance of “Single Ladies” is one of the film’s only redeeming moments—but for all their education and New York openness, they have not a freaking clue how to respect other cultures.

Isn’t it funny that the woman at the next table has to lift her veil to eat? Hilarious that Muslims are offended by public displays of affection? (Samantha is arrested for kissing on the beach.) Isn’t it just uproarious that an ankle or a bare arm is scandalous to these backwards people? Note to the writers: unabashedly lampooning the traditions of a conservative society is not the best way to point out its myriad differences from (and similarities to) our own. Samantha’s sexuality is one of the progressive aspects of the show and the movies; a woman who enjoys sex with multiple partners and doesn’t care what anyone else thinks is still hard for Americans to stomach, and the terms “cougar” and “slut” are already being thrown around in other reviews. There are a few jabs at American prudishness along with the winking “how silly this is” reactions to Islamic conservatism, but these would’ve been easier to swallow were it not for the blatant impertinence toward Muslim culture. Jessica Simpson’s ridiculous TV show “Price of Beauty” is more culturally sensitive—and that’s not saying much.

On a shallower note, costume designer Pat Field dropped the ball on this film, too. This reviewer is not immune to the charms of great shoes or a gorgeous dress, but in Sex and the City 2, fashion turbans, harem pants, gauzy cloaks, full color-blocked skirts, and artfully deconstructed “J’Adore Dior” tee shirts are the girls’ uniforms of choice in Abu Dhabi. None of it’s attractive. There’s eye candy in the form of bulging Speedos and glistening pectoral muscles on the Australian national rugby team, and the art directors created a lovely set for Carrie and Big’s shared apartment. The movie is excessively long at two and a half hours, after which you may need a stiff drink (but not a Cosmo). Certainly there will be people who love the movie for its flaws. Those who long for the comfort of those characters will take the playfulness and bad jokes in stride, and find redeeming qualities. Nothing’s above criticism, though, and any movie that treats its subject and viewers with so little respect deserves none itself.

At one point in the film, Carrie narrates, “That’s the thing about tradition…it sneaks in whether you like it or not.” The show was anything but traditional, and that’s what made it great. Samantha’s rollicking sex life, Miranda’s career-oriented lifestyle, and Carrie’s reluctance to traditional marriage made them fantastic foils for naïve Charlotte’s conservatism. The characters offered something for everyone. Now, tradition, in the form of romantic comedy tropes and atrocious jokes, is seeping between the cracks (or gushing if you prefer). What used to be a fun and funny series about intelligent, sympathetic, albeit sometimes shallow, characters that enjoy sex as much as their respective careers, has degenerated into movies that beg us to laugh at the stupid, shallow American women. If this is what feminism in film is supposed to be, we need a sea change.

Movie Review: Kick-Ass (4/17/10)

Movie Poster: Kick-Ass
Kick-Ass

Directed by Matthew Vaughn
Screenplay by Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn
Based on the graphic novel by Mark Millar, John S. Romita Jr.

Dave Lizewski/Kick-Ass – Aaron Johnson
Chris D’Amico/Red Mist – Christopher Mintz-Plasse
Frank D’Amico – Mark Strong
Mindy/Hit Girl – Chloe Grace Moretz
Marty – Clark Duke
Katie – Lyndsy Fonseca
Todd – Evan Peters
Damon/Big Daddy – Nicolas Cage

CLR Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Movie Still: Kick-Ass

Aaron Johnson (as Kick-Ass) and Chloë Moretz (as Hit Girl) star in Kick-Ass
[Photo courtesy of Marv Films/Lionsgate]

A Really Entertaining,
Shallow, Ultraviolent Action Comedy

Kick-Ass doesn’t boast deep, meaningful characters, nor is it a film about the fate of the human condition—not really, anyway. It is, however vulgar, violent, and juvenile—a fun movie to watch. The film, which is based on a series of graphic novels by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr., tells the story of a totally average high school kid Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), who dons a wetsuit and decides to be a superhero. At first it’s all kind of a fun game. Dave gets shanked on his first real outing, of course—but after a long stay in the hospital and installation of steel-reinforced bones, he finds himself back in a position to, well, kick ass. Thanks to the YouTube revolution, Dave’s alter ego Kick-Ass makes 17,000 MySpace friends overnight and becomes an underdog hero. Then things start to get really crazy.

“Like every serial killer ever knew, eventually fantasizing doesn’t do it for you anymore,” Dave narrates. That comparison is frighteningly apt; sometimes giving yourself an alter ego is enough to unleash the id, and daydreaming just doesn’t cut it. Dave meets fellow heroes Hit-Girl (Chloë Moretz) and Big Daddy (Nicholas Cage), whose idea of vigilante crimefighting involves machetes, katanas, every kind of firearm imaginable, and buckets of blood. Hit-Girl and Big Daddy have daddy-daughter bonding time over new weapons, the merits of Kevlar and hot chocolate (with extra marshmallows). However adorable their personal relationship may be, they have an agenda: they’re out to avenge Hit-Girl’s mother (Big Daddy’s wife) who died because drug kingpin Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong) had Big Daddy locked up. D’Amico’s son Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who hungers for his father’s power, helps lure Kick-Ass into a web of trickery by creating his own superhero alter, Red Mist.

Superheroes have long been the territory of comic geeks everywhere (though the aughties have been a decade of hero worship, what with the X-Men, Spider-Man, and Batman franchises taking over the world). Kick-Ass knows its history: it translates nearly word-for-word from the graphic novel. Director Vaughn stuck neatly to the cartoon aspect of comics: shots fade to Big Daddy’s hand-drawn comics, narrative bubbles pop up in the corners of the screen, a neatly animated sequence wraps up Big Daddy’s past, and sometimes the cinematography takes a direct queue from a panel. Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s 2005 hit Sin City was a nearly shot-for-shot interpretation of the Sin City graphic novels, and while Kick-Ass isn’t nearly as anal retentive, the influence is clear. The filmmakers even inserted first-person shooter perspective to further combine elements of different media. And yet, the movie doesn’t feel forced or contrived; it’s a smart amalgam of comics, video games, and film.

Most importantly, Kick-Ass doesn’t pull any punches. The violence is hardcore, the cursing is constant, and the subject matter is not for the faint of heart. If you have an aversion to the f-word, the c-word, bloody violence, or an eleven-year-old girl brutally murdering bad guys (and taking a fair beating herself), avoid this movie. Otherwise you’ll be in hog heaven with the rest of the action- and comics-geeks. In video stores (do they still exist?) Kick-Ass would be comfortable in either the Comedy or Action sections. Vaughn and Jane Goldman adapted the books into a smart script, and each actor has fantastic comic timing. Watching two kids in superhero costumes rock out to Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” may be the highlight of your week. Or a little girl in a plaid skirt kicking the living crap out of a bunch of scary goons might float your boat.

Relative newcomer Aaron Johnson plays squeaky-voiced Dave with gusto, especially considering the British actor played a New Yorker—and well. Christopher Mintz-Plasse, who will likely spend the rest of his career trying to outgrow his role as McLovin in the brilliant Superbad, coasts through Red Mist on his geeky charm. Thirteen-year-old Chloë Moretz, who’s also playing the controversial child vampire role in this year’s American remake of Sweden’s Let the Right One In, displays wit, grace, and guts befitting a much older actor. This girl is definitely worth keeping an eye on. Her role is making news for its adult nature: she cusses and kicks ass with the best of them, and people can’t take that coming from a little girl. It’s refreshing to see a kid get to hold her own against the baddies. Nicholas Cage puts on his goofball persona as Big Daddy, unnecessarily adding an earnest and stilted quality to the character. Mark Strong bared his chops as a villain in last year’s Sherlock Holmes, and shows once again that evil doesn’t have to mean somber.

As a fun action flick, Kick-Ass definitely holds its own, but it sticks to the shallow end of the pool. With subject matter like this, so much more could’ve been done. For a movie about heroism in a generation of nonchalance, a flick that deals with the translation of video game violence into the real world, pits Freud’s id against ego against superego, and adds in a dash of coming-of-age, it only scratches the surface of the important bits. But its action sequences are utterly rewarding, the script is smart and entertaining, and it’s wide open for myriad sequel possibilities. Though it’s not the year’s best movie, Kick-Ass is a really entertaining escape into a world where the bad guys don’t always get away with dirty deeds and even the most normal among us have a shot at, if not saving the world, at least getting the girl.

Movie Review: The Princess and the Frog (12/11/09)

Movie Poster: Princess and the Frog

The Princess and the Frog

Directed by John Musker, Ron Clements
Screenplay by Ron Clements, John Musker, Rob Edwards

Tiana – Anika Noni Rose
Prince Naveen – Bruno Campos
Dr. Facilier – Keith David
Louis – Michael-Leon Wooley
Charlotte – Jennifer Cody
Ray – Jim Cummings
Lawrence – Peter Bartlett
Mama Odie – Jenifer Lewis
Eudora – Oprah Winfrey
James – Terrence Howard
“Big Daddy” La Bouff – John Goodman

CLR Rating: 4/5 stars

Movie Still: Invictus

Disney Brings New Orleans to Vibrant Life With a New Princess Fable

No one knows better than Disney that, come time to adorn the Christmas tree, light the Menorah, or decorate for whatever holiday you may celebrate, audiences pine for light-hearted entertainment. This year’s The Princess and the Frog has already earned a lot of press due to its protagonist, Tiana, the very first African American Disney princess in the history of the company—which was founded over 85 years ago. The movie is also the first hand-drawn Disney film since the 2004 flop Home on the Range. Those of us who grew up on Sleeping Beauty, The Rescuers, The Lion King, and Snow White appreciate CGI’s perfection, but have also been longing for a return to the classic style. The Princess and the Frog is a gracious reward for the wait.

The movie opens on a beautifully rendered mansion. Two little girls, Tiana, with gorgeous cocoa-hued skin and plain clothes, and Charlotte, a vivacious little white girl in princess pink and ruffles, listen intently as Tiana’s mother Eudora recounts the fairy tale The Princess and the Frog. All three have lovely, soft Southern accents: instead of being played for laughs, their speech patterns are genuinely pretty. Charlotte swoons over the idea of marrying a prince while the independent Tiana remains skeptical. After all, who needs a man? Tiana and Eudora board a trolley home to the row of shacks where they live: this is a more realistic portrayal of race relations in the Southern U.S. than Disney has ever done before.

Cut to years later: an older Tiana is working herself to the bone as a waitress to buy an old sugar mill so she can open a restaurant. She drops a few coins into one of many coffee tins labeled RESTAURANT before she plops, exhausted, onto her bed. As she rushes back to work, a brass band dances down the street as Randy Newman croons, “Dreams do come true in New Orleans!” The city, which since Katrina has been imbued with a sense of tragedy, comes alive in Disney’s hands. The animation is strikingly beautiful—colors pop, architecture sings, and the music pays loving tribute to the original home of jazz. In Tiana’s vivid imaginings, Art Deco lives and breathes as flappers dance the Charleston and sip champagne in a decadent restaurant in the heart of the south.

On a visit to the city, Prince Naveen of Maldonia, over whom Charlotte swoons—she’s finally going to snag herself a prince!—proves to be a smarmy, self-centered joke (with a heart of gold). When a greedy voodoo shadow man, Facilier, turns him into a frog, Naveen appears to Tiana, begging for a kiss. When he offers her money for the restaurant, she can’t help obliging, and as a result she transforms into a slimy (mucus-secreting, actually) green amphibian herself. The two frogs head into the swamps, meeting a gator who longs to play jazz with the humans, a Cajun firefly in love with the Evening Star, and Mama Odie, a nutty voodoo priestess who lives in a wrecked ship in the bayou. Naveen falls in love with Tiana, and she realizes that her restaurant dream means nothing if she has no love in her life. The plot is fluffy Disney at its best—but the execution makes it a worthwhile watch.

Tiana is a major (and welcome) departure from most Disney princesses, the majority of whom are lily-white and have straight, shiny locks. Her dark skin and curly hair make her an ideal role model for the girls who have long yearned for an idol who looked the least bit like them. Cinderella and Snow White are famously hardworking Disney princesses, but they were enslaved as a punishment for their beauty (notably by jealous older women), and their stories culminate in finding Prince Charming. Tiana’s work ethic comes from her desire to be independent and build her own destiny—wonderful traits to offer today’s little girls. At one point her landlord chastises her, “A little woman of your…background…would have her hands full trying to run a business like that.” Well, she shows him. She’s a fantastically feminist character who, through her integrity and hard work, achieves her dreams. No silver spoons, angsty machinations, or evil stepmothers for this princess. Her motto is “watch out boys, I’m coming through!” Though her story includes a few tiaras, a flawed Prince Charming, and a number of hurdles, she’s not your everyday Disney muse—and that’s the best thing about the movie.

Adults and children alike will find themselves enchanted with Disney’s original retelling of a very American story, and with the animation that renews the vibrancy and brilliancy of a singular American city. Disney fans and those looking for a fun movie on a winter’s eve will not be disappointed. Parts of the movie draw on other Disney films: there are hints of The Rescuers’ fat, lively alligators, the spooky shadow spirits of Fantasia’s Night on Bald Mountain, and Cinderella’s beautiful ball gown, but these are comforting touches for those who grew up on classic Disney. The Princess and the Frog isn’t a really standout addition to the Disney stable, but it’s certainly worth watching—especially if you have a little girl who longs to be a princess, or if somewhere in your heart of hearts, a part of you longs for the fairy tale to come to life.

Movie Review: Fantastic Mr. Fox (11/25/09)

Movie Poster: Fantastic Mr. Fox

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Directed by Wes Anderson
Screenplay by Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach
Based on the book by Roald Dahl

Mr. Fox – George Clooney
Mrs. Fox – Meryl Streep
Ash – Jason Schwartzman
Badger – Bill Murray
Kylie – Wally Wolodarsky
Kristofferson – Eric Anderson
Franklin Bean – Michael Gambon
Rat – Willem Dafoe
Coach Skip – Owen Wilson
Petey – Jarvis Cocker

CLR Rating: 4/5 stars

Movie Still: Fantastic Mr. Fox

A Whimsical Animated Film for Adults and Children Alike

Wes Anderson’s newest film, Fantastic Mr. Fox, is an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic novel of the same name. Dahl’s novels, which have helped usher many a disgruntled kid through the travails of childhood, don’t condescend to the young, but there’s an element of whimsy that makes readers want to live in his world. Wes Anderson’s movies, on the other hand, can be hit-or-miss. His films tend toward the pretentious, and he uses a broad cast of actors repeatedly in his movies. Understated line delivery, artfully composed shots, and a focus on dysfunction alienate some viewers while drawing ardent fans from the other end of the spectrum. The combination of Dahl and Anderson proves a winner in Thanksgiving’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, with Dahl’s fanciful novel providing a great backdrop for Anderson’s regimented directorial style.

Fantastic Mr. Fox is a pleasant return to classic stop-motion animation, a technique little used anymore. The film went through a long and rigorous production beginning five years ago, and the result is well, fantastic. The sets are beautifully detailed, the puppets’ every hair defined, and each movement is choreographed lovingly (as, one assumes, it had to be, since the film is effectively a series of photographs of puppets). According to IMDb, Anderson used a Nikon D3 camera, which allows for higher definition photography, and the film was shot at twelve frames per second instead of the normal twenty-four. As a result, the characters’ movements are a little jerky, a touch that clues the audience in to the stop-motion animation. The puppetry allows for cute touches (for instance, a “pregnancy glow” is portrayed by an actual fox-shaped lamp). The movie has an alternately surreal and very realistic feel, perfect for the material.

When the film opens, Mr. Fox (George Clooney) and Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) raid the neighbor’s chicken coop (as foxes do), and she confides that she’s pregnant just as a trap falls on their heads. Cut to two years later (twelve fox-years), and Mr. Fox works as a newspaper man instead of killing chickens, and their petulant son Ash (Jason Schwartzman) strives to live up to his father’s expectations. Mr. Fox can’t stay away from his foxy nature for long, and recruits the opossum Kylie and his nephew Kristofferson to help him begin executing his Master Plan—to steal from the three biggest, baddest, ugliest farmers in the land, Boggis, Bunce, and Bean. Unfortunately, the farmers catch on and begin a fruitless attempt to catch the critters as they burrow farther beneath the ground, finding new and different ways to outfox the baddies (pun intended).

By nature the plot is a kids’ story, but in Anderson’s hands, the foxes, badgers, weasels, rats, and bunnies are clad in dapper corduroy suits, living a very civilized life beneath the humans’ noses. There is talk of interest rates, feeling poor, and sports in P.E. class, where Ash struggles to “be an athlete” like his father. Though they’re living quite human lives, the animals slowly realize their talents lie in their own nature—foxes are clever, bunnies fast, moles good at digging, etc. The pleasure is in the incongruity between the civilized costumes and the distinctly wild animal behaviors. As audiences we’re used to talking animals in little animal attire, but rarely do Disney’s cavorting critters (or at least not the “good” ones) indulge their true natures. The Foxes, badger, and opossum are distinctly wild animals, and they kill chickens, ripping apart their dinner with wild furor. Anderson cuts away from any fowl murders, of course, and Kylie the opossum even comments, “there’s blood and stuff!” But nonetheless, it’s amusing to see animals acting like animals as well as taking on human characteristics. If there’s a message here, it’s that we shouldn’t try to be something we’re not.

Anderson fans will love that his directorial style is still present in a medium in which you’ve never seen him before. He has a penchant for title cards, and his films sometimes play as though they’re a series of vignettes rather than a cohesive whole, which can be sort of annoying in an adult narrative film. Here, though, the material is whimsical enough that it works perfectly. Anderson evidently acted out scenes himself during production, then sent video to the puppeteers and animators overseas. Though this left some of his crew disgruntled, it certainly speaks volumes about the value of our communications technology. Anderson based the film’s set on the town in which Dahl lived and worked, recorded actors’ voices outdoors to add reality to the soundtrack, and included details that show his adoration of the source material.

Though his style can be overly quirky and a bit affected, Anderson’s films generally get you laughing, and this one’s no different. Fantastic Mr. Fox may not appeal to very young children, but Disney’s soon-to-be-released new cel animation The Princess and the Frog should fill that gap. For everyone else (slightly older kids through senior citizens), Fantastic Mr. Fox is a smart, fun holiday release that’s worthy of a watch. And one thing’s for certain: you’ve never seen a movie that looks like this, but you should.