Itís been a surprising year for filmmakers I usually dislike. Michael Haneke tempered his misanthropy with traces of compassion in The White Ribbon, the Coen brothers contemplated their roots and fears in A Serious Man, and now Wes Anderson charms me for the first time since Bottle Rocket with Fantastic Mr. Fox. In this thin, alluring procession of stop-motion-animated dioramas, the title character (voiced by George Clooney) is a dashing poultry-raider whose vivacity, tamed by family life, is sparked once more in a war with villainous farmers. Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) claws his cheek for breaking his vow of domesticity but basically stands by her man, their cub (Jason Schwartzman) learns to embrace his misfit self, and epiphanies are mythical creatures glimpsed from a distance. Pure Anderson melancholy, in other words, despite the Roald Dahl childrenís book heís adapting and the copious chunks of Beatrix Potter and Kenneth Grahame he avails himself of. And yet, that claustrophobic feeling of precious bratitude that hurt my teeth so much in The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited -- the feeling of somebody who's read The Catcher in the Rye a dozen times without ever wondering if Holden Caulfield might be a bit of an asshole -- has been, if not transcended, then at least wittily taken to the puppet theater where it belonged all along. Mr. Foxís yearning for animalistic escape ("How can a fox be happy without a chicken in his teeth?") and his fear of castration (his tail is blasted off and worn as a cravat) are fetching distillations of Andersonís beloved theme of youthful dreams squelched by adult compromise. When Anderson shoots close-ups of plastic furries more caressingly than he does of human actors, however, I again start to worry about an artist just wanting to be alone with his toys. So, yeah, itís not fantastic (and itís no Coraline), but itís heartfelt, never less than pretty, and occasionally effulgent.
Shaming the passive-aggressive whimpers of Where the Wild Things Are, Andersonís stock company (Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe, Owen Wilson) does buoyant voice work in Fantastic Mr. Fox. Vocal honors go to Clooney, whose Mr. Fox is a gallantly self-deluded patriarch embodying the actorís penchant for silliness as well as the insecurities buried behind his dapperness. The silly side gets a strained workout in The Men Who Stare at Goats, a jerkier, sloppier brand of hipster cartoon. Goats, not chickens, are the tormented livestock here, part of a top-secret strategy in which Army doofuses try mind-control tricks on farm animals in the midst of the Iraq War. The toothless joke is that the touchy-feely platitudes so reviled by hawks have been appropriated by a government desperate for victory in military quagmires. Enter the New Earth Army, a loose-limbed unit of stoned telepaths whose mega-hippified founder (Jeff Bridges, depressingly made to reprise The Dude) is determined to make the U.S. the "first superpower to have super powers." "You gotta free your feet before you can free your mind," Bridges tells an Eighties-bewigged Clooney at a Billy Idol-scored dance session, and soon enough the callow soldier has become the unitís greatest "Jedi warrior." Which makes party-pooper Kevin Spacey (who perverts Bridgesí tactics into prisoner torture) the dark side of the force, I guess. (The whole thing is recounted by journalist Ewan McGregor, and, if you can laugh at McGregor repeatedly wondering about Jedi warriors, then youíve exhausted about 80 percent of the movieís humor.) An absurdist version of Clooneyís Middle East activist-ventures (Three Kings, Syriana) is a promising idea, but director Grant Heslov is so clueless and the tone so uncertain (now itís farce, now itís critique, now itís magical realism) that the most watered-down episode of M*A*S*H* looks like a Joseph Heller classic by comparison.
Back to animation with A Christmas Carol -- or to 3D motion-capture, rather. Robert Zemeckis, a filmmaker always willing to be distracted by shiny new technology, gives Charles Dickensí durable scared-straight chestnut the digital treatment after applying it with variously creepy-charmless results to The Polar Express and Beowulf. Third time is the charm? Not quite. Reducing live-action performers to pixel skeletons and then pouring gummy CGI-wax over them still seems to me a lost cause. Thickly digitalized, Gary Oldman is a weirdly leprechauny Bob Cratchit, Colin Firth a blankly cherubic Fred, and Bob Hoskins a raucously blobby Mr. Fezziwig -- out of Madame Tussaudís, all of them. At its center, however, is Jim Carreyís top-notch pantomime of Ebenezer Scrooge as a hunched, elongated ogre endowed with a genuine sense of regret and terror. (Carrey also plays the three Christmas ghosts: Past is a cooing candle-man, Present a Wellesian chortler, Future a shadowy Reaper.) From the opening shot of coins taken from a corpseís eyes into a miserís purse, itís clear that Dickensí beloved yuletide heartwarmer is really a horror yarn about the dangers of unchecked "pursuits of substance," even if Zemeckis insists on shooting it like a Victorian Back to the Future installment. Freed from physical restraints, his camera zips around London, follows Scrooge and the phantoms across the sky, and, regrettably, goes down one toboggan slide after another. (I can see Dickens nodding: "Turning the Ghost of Christmas Future sequence into a hectic spook-house with red-eyed stallions and a squeaky, miniaturized Scrooge, eh? Why didnít I think of that?") The razzle-dazzle is just about seamless, but warmth is sacrificed along the way. I prefer the way Mr. Foxís fur quivers from frame to frame, a loving reminder of human hands, rather than computers, at work.
Another Christmastime morality tale, The Box finds Donnie Darko auteur and Amy Taubin fetish-object Richard Kelly giving studio filmmaking a try following the critical smackdown of his giddy, ambitious 2007 trash-compactor, Southland Tales. The setting is a tepidly Lynchified 1976 suburbia, where wannabe astronaut James Marsden toils for NASA while his high-school teacher wife (Cameron Diaz) reveals her deformed foot to a leering student. A "financial opportunity" comes their way when a Mephistopheles with a blistered-off jaw (Frank Langella) shows up at their doorstep and drops off the title object, a wooden square with a huge button on top of it. Push it and somebody in the world dies -- and you pocket a cool million. The deed is done, and the tiresome cosmic paranoia kicks in: "Listen to your conscience... You got blood on your hands... Somebody pushing your buttons?" The basis (Richard Mathesonís short story Button, Button) is sturdy, but Kelly canít resist larding it up with his by now trademark metaphysical mash of cultural nods. There are cryptic portals, Sartreís No Exit, Martians, nosebleeds, Arthur C. Clarkeís Third Law, that Whatís Happening! TV sitcom... But no mention of Family Feudís suspiciously Box-like buzzers? What self-respecting, trippy conspiracy farrago would leave that out? Seriously, though, the most disturbing thing here is the yellow, oval-patterned 1970s wallpaper.
Reviewed December 8, 2009.