Wes Anderson uses stop-motion in his endlessly enchanting Roald Dahl adaptation Fantastic Mr. Fox, so his animal and human characters have a slight jerkiness; and instead of experiencing the smooth, computerized impersonality of most modern animated movies, you sense the presence of the artists behind the screen—the life force. Featuring puppets instead of people, Anderson’s frames have never felt so teeming, so magically alive. He and his co-writer, Noah Baumbach, have added subplots and characters and themes to Dahl’s brisk, cheerfully wicked tale, and the additions are okay; but it’s the look that keeps you buoyed up, your eyes roaming the frames, laughing in surprise at the visual jokes and flourishes and textures. It’s a dandy’s movie, but that adds to the fun. The preening, resourceful Mr. Fox is a dandy, too.
Mr. Fox has the voice of George Clooney, which I thought was a mistake for maybe 30 seconds: His toasty baritone is so recognizable you can’t help seeing his handsome mug instead of the fox’s. Then it hit me Clooney was doing his best work in years—good enough to kill the bad taste of The Men Who Stare at Goats. (Anderson and Baumbach send up his Ocean’s Eleven character’s appetite for poring over blueprints.) An inventive thief, Mr. Fox goes straight when his wife (voiced by Meryl Streep, also briefly jarring) has a son; he gets a job as a newspaper columnist and moves out of his hole to plusher digs inside a tree. But material wealth does not bring contentment. He can’t resist the challenge of stealing from his new neighbors, the three nasty farmers Boggis and Bunce and Bean (“one fat, one short, one lean,” goes the children’s song). Sneaking around the missus, Mr. Fox and his antsy opossum sidekick Kylie (Wally Wolodarsky) pull off three splendid capers—but they don’t reckon on the steely vindictiveness of the skeletal Bean (Michael Gambon).
Dahl’s kids’ books have a sort of orderly whimsy, and Anderson, a formalist to the core, is gleefully in tune with that precision. He’s a master of off-symmetry. I imagine him putting a character dead center in the frame, unbalancing it slightly on one side, then adding a near (not exact) counterweight, so that the screen becomes a seesaw, giving the illusion of motion even when still. Watching his other films, I often feel his mannered compositions—gorgeous as they are—vying for attention with his characters. (In his most affecting scenes, it’s as if characters themselves are trapped in Chinese boxes, chafing at the confinement of their spirit.) But in Fantastic Mr. Fox, the grand design extends to the way the doll-like puppets seize the space: From the first moment, when Mr. Fox does his morning stretches on a great mound of dirt, the characters seem to take pleasure in their own miraculous movements. Love of ingenuity is the movie’s message. Mr. Fox’s second burglary is seen only on a row of security monitors behind an unaware Bunce: On one after the other, he and his opossum henchman pop up, creep, seize their plunder, and exit stage right. How I wish Chuck Jones had lived to see that. He’d have died laughing.
Anderson himself is a bit of a fox. He’ll use any tricky disjunction to disarm you. There’s no way the disparate elements of this movie should jell, yet here they sit, side by side, in the bric-a-brac of his brain. Frames in the foxes’ den have a depth of field that evokes Velázquez paintings in the Prado. Then a bunch of characters dash down a tunnel to escape the farmers’ bulldozers, looking in long shot like a child’s plastic toy soldiers. A confrontation with an elongated hepcat security-guard rat (with the stabbing voice of Willem Dafoe) is scored and staged like a Sergio Leone spaghetti Western. Not even Quentin Tarantino would have the audacity to assemble a soundtrack in which the Beach Boys’ “Heroes and Villains” is followed by Burl Ives, Mozart, Jarvis Cocker (as a farmhand) singing and picking a banjo, the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man,” and—believe it or not—“Ol’ Man River.”
Fantastic Mr. Fox is such a marvelous toy box of a movie that a bit of fantastic leaks out when Anderson introduces his pet serious motif: the son who tries desperately to forge a bond with his self-absorbed, unappreciative father. Young Ash (Jason Schwartzman) doesn’t have his dad’s athletic prowess, and he’s dismayed when Mr. Fox sees a chip off the old block in his cousin, Kristofferson (Eric Anderson). That’s fine—except Ash is kind of a drag, and his brave effort to save his kidnapped cousin (followed by chases, escapes, etc.) is the movie’s lone concession to formula. The final image makes up for it, though: a series of connected domiciles in the sewer system, each a little dollhouse in which Anderson can work his wizardry.
In one respect, Fantastic Mr. Fox feels incomplete. When it ended, I found myself wishing that Anderson, animation director Mark Gustafson, cinematographer Tristan Oliver, designer Nelson Lowry, and the whole battery of gifted artists could come out and take a bow. Months of labor in every frame, and it still feels handmade, present, as if they’re all backstage and the curtain is going up before your eyes.
Back in China after nearly two decades making Hollywood movies, John Woo tries in the military epic Red Cliff to bring off the kind of artsy martial arts (martial-artsy?) period picture that Zhang Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers) does peerlessly. But he’ll always be a vulgarian. His action is cluttered, his compositions have no texture, and he loves him some tacky slow motion. That said, all 148 minutes of Red Cliff are very enjoyable. The scale is huge. The armada of warships might be obvious CGI, but there are thousands of real men onscreen assembling themselves into giant pincers and hacking and slashing away at one another. (Chinese extras work cheap.) Better yet, this is one of the few war films to focus on the art and science of battle—on stratagems, countermoves, counter-counter-moves, and on the game of getting inside one’s enemy’s head. As in chess, tactics and psychology are inextricable.
The setting is A.D. 208, when a ruthless powermonger named Cao Cao has bullied the Han emperor into letting him invade the unwarlike West and South. In addition to being a bloodthirsty monster, the scoundrel covets the beauteous wife (Chiling Lin) of East Wu viceroy Zhou Yu (Tony Leung, whose first appearance gets a star buildup that would have embarrassed Elvis). The forging of alliances— as Zhou and an emissary named Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) measure each other’s character by jamming together on period instruments—is great fun, and Woo crosscuts between Cao Cao hatching plots and Zhou Yu supernaturally reading his mind from afar. Any war picture in which the heroine stalls the villain with a quiet, painstaking tea ceremony until the wind shifts direction and the good guys can firebomb the bad guys into oblivion is too ineffably Zen not to love.