Tonight, my family enjoyed the new Wes Anderson stop-motion animated feature, "Fantastic Mr. Fox". What a delight! It's a family-friendly adventure, but you can read that kind of thing in any number of reviews, but if you read only one, make it this one, from the New York Times (a review so good that a visitor to nytimes.com commented "I'm really glad I saw this movie, I thought it was great. And this review is even better.")
Instead, I want to talk about what Mr. Fox wasn't. It definitely isn't the latest Chipmunks "Squeakquel", as it's being marketed. No, seriously, that's what they're calling it.
I'm old enough to remember the original Chipmunks, created and voiced by Ross Bagdasarian (as "David Seville") and originally released around the time of my birth. I'm talkin about authentic old skool pre-animated-series Chipmunks. I was always a little bothered by the fact that David Seville was too hard on the boys, particularly his completely untrue criticism that Alvin was "a little flat" in the first verse of The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late). I associated with Alvin. He was the class clown, always popping off and getting in trouble for it. He was mi hermano, my brother.
(Aside: I associated so much with The Chipmunks that "Chipmunk" was my pet name for the first woman I thought I was going to marry, back in my freshman year of college. Chipmunk, as it turns out, is an Algonquin word, and she lived on Algonquin Lane, which may or may have had something to do with her nickname. That, or her cute little cheeks, I can't remember. I was a kid in love. Logic didn't enter into it.)
I don't have any real memory of the animated series, but I'd bet dollars to donuts that no matter how bad it may have been, it was worlds better than the computer-animated market-researched garbage that trades under the name of "The Chipmunks" today.
For as long as I can remember having an opinion (and that goes back as far as I can remember), I have despised things that are self-consciously precious. Worse, if they're self-consciously cute with a put-on "streetwise in-your-face" attitude. Which, when you get right down to is, is pretty much all that the new Chipmunks have to offer: self-conscious preciousness with a streetwise in-your-face attitude. If you're a "Simpsons" fan, today's Chipmunks are pretty much equivalent to "Poochy", the hip, jive-talkin', ripped-straight-from-today's-market-research character added to the (show-within-a-show) "Itchy & Scratchy" cartoon to save its sagging ratings in the episode "The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show".
Fantastic Mr. Fox is the antithesis of this Return of The Chipmunks tripe. The story, from twisted-children's-book author Roald Dahl, gives it a dark edge that isn't some studio executive's idea of what "tested as 'edgy' with key demographics". The look feels like someone's authentic vision, rather than the mind-numbing Disney Channel sameness of the new Chipmunks. It has a very slight, but wholly endearing hand-crafted tattiness that reminds me of the first Wallace and Gromit films.
It's no surprise, apparently, that it feels so "indie", coming as it does from auteur director Wes Anderson, famously involved in all aspects of his meticulously-crafted films. If there is a medium that necessitates meticulous film-making, it's stop-motion animation.
I love the fact that, in 2009, a decidedly hand-made film can attract the attention that has abeen lavished on Mr. Fox. The New York Times reveled in its non-digital origins:
"Fantastic Mr. Fox" is a proudly analog animated entertainment, making its handmade way into a marketplace glutted with digital goodies. Next to the three-dimensional, computer-generated creatures that swoop and soar off the screen these days, the furry talking animals on display here, with their matted pelts, jerky movements and porcelain eyes, might look a little quaint, like old-fashioned wind-up toys uneasily sharing the shelf with the latest video game platforms.
Mr. Fox may freak out the self-righteous types who manag themselves up in arms over the hints of marital infidelity in The Incredibles (this actually came up from a friend of mine -- well, his wife, anyway). It doesn't send a clear "crime doesn't pay" message: the titular Fox gleefully steals from farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean and breaks into a supermarket, encouraging his family and friends to loot it, and those are the happiest moments in the film, from the characters' point of view.
Have these people never read a fairy tale? Do they refuse to read Hansel and Gretel because it glorifies cannibalism? Do they criticize nursery rhymes such as "Rock-a-Bye Baby" because if its cavalier attitude to child safety?
See Fantastic Mr. Fox. It's definitely a Wes Anderson film, with its symmetrical, right-angle set designs and shooting angles, big blocks of primary colors, dysfunctional family dynamics and deadpan humor, but it's a lot easier to take than Rushmore.
It's also a long, long way from the soulless focus-grouped slickness of the upcoming Chipmunks' "squeakquel".