FANTASTIC MR. FOX is visionary director Wes Anderson's first animated film, utilizing classic handmade stop-motion techniques to tell the story of the best-selling children's book by Roald Dahl (author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach).
Directed by Wes Anderson and written for the screen by Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach, the film features the voices of George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Wally Wolodarsky, Eric Anderson, Michael Gambon, Willem Dafoe, Owen Wilson, and Jarvis Cocker.
Mr. and Mrs. Fox (Clooney and Streep) live an idyllic home life with their son Ash (Schwartzman) and visiting young nephew Kristofferson (Eric Anderson). But after twelve years of quiet domesticity, the bucolic existence proves too much for Mr. Fox's wild animal instincts. Soon he slips back into his old ways as a sneaky chicken thief and in doing so, endangers not only his beloved family, but the whole animal community. Trapped underground without enough food to go around, the animals band together to fight against the evil Farmers - Boggis, Bunce and Bean - who are determined to capture the audacious, fantastic Mr. Fox at any cost. In the end, he uses his natural instincts to save his family and friends.
First published in 1970 by Alfred Knopf in the US and George Allen & Unwin in the UK, with illustrations by Donald Chaffin, Roald Dahl's beloved book Fantastic Mr. Fox has enchanted and delighted generations of children and their parents alike for almost 40 years. Now, thanks to the bittersweet, wryly funny vision of acclaimed filmmaker Wes Anderson (RUSHMORE, THE ROYAL TENNENBAUMS, THE DARJEELING LIMITED) and the magic of stop-motion animation, Dahl's darkly humorous tale of the noble, charming and fantastic Mr. Fox is set to enthrall and delight an even wider audience.
Anderson first read Dahl's Fantastic Mr. Fox as a child growing up in Houston, Texas and was captivated by it. "It was not only the first Roald Dahl book I ever read, it was the first book I ever owned," he says. "I loved the character of Mr. Fox, this sort of heroic and slightly vain animal. And I also loved the digging. My brothers and I were obsessed with being underground and with tunnels and forts. He's a wonderful writer and his personality comes through in the writing so forcefully."
Although Roald Dahl died in 1990, his work remains as influential and popular as ever, with many of his celebrated children's books having been adapted for the big screen, among them Charlie And The Chocolate Factory (which was the source of both the 1972 feature, WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, and the 2005 film starring Johnny Depp), James And The Giant Peach, Matilda, and The Witches, with several others in various stages of development.
Anderson optioned the movie rights to Fantastic Mr. Fox from Dahl's widow Felicity "Liccy" Dahl, who runs the late author's literary estate. "My film agent in Los Angeles approached me nine years ago, saying, 'I've had an enquiry from somebody called Wes Anderson, who wants to make a film of Fantastic Mr. Fox'," Dahl recalls. "In my ignorance, I hadn't heard of Wes Anderson then and he'd just made RUSHMORE and BOTTLE ROCKET. Michael sent me the videos and I looked at them and I thought, this guy has got talent. He was very young then and it wasn't until about three years later that we met in New York. He asked me to have lunch with him. He took me to a very posh restaurant and he was sitting, waiting for me when I walked in, and he stood up and he immediately looked like Mr. Fox, beautifully dressed, immaculate, and I said 'Gosh, Wes, what are we doing here?' And he said the cheese soufflé's fantastic. He was in the middle of getting THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS together and we chatted and I thought, yes, this is the guy to make this film."
Before he began work on the script, Anderson visited Gipsy House, the Dahl family's estate in Great Missenden in Buckinghamshire, England, where the late author famously worked in a writing hut in the garden.
"He came to Gipsy House and we spent a very wet muddy day walking all over the hills, the woods, the dales, everywhere and we had good fun," Felicity Dahl continues.
"I went to Gipsy House in March, and it was drenched in mud," Anderson says. "Liccy gave me a pair of rubber boots and one of Dahl's old fishing hats and took me around the property. There is a gigantic beech tree at the end of a fox run, which I immediately recognized from Fantastic Mr. Fox. There is a painted gypsy caravan under a tree, which I had seen in dust-jacket photographs. There is a stone half buried on the edge of the drive with the word 'gipsy' carved into it.
"Liccy showed me into Dahl's famous writing hut," Anderson continues. "There is part of a bone from his hip on the table next to his first metal hip replacement, which didn't take. There is a 10-pound ball of aluminum foil made from several years of Cadbury chocolate wrappers. There is a little surgical valve he invented that saved his son from hydrocephalus (a.k.a. water on the brain). That night Liccy left me to examine Dahl's manuscripts in an office next to the guesthouse. An archivist made me wash my hands twice with special soap and told me to close all the curtains and lock the door when I was finished. I was alone with dozens of handwritten drafts with Dahl's sketches in the margins, and I could see his whole process laid out in front of me. More than ever, I felt as if I were in his presence."
During the visit, Anderson asked Dahl if he and his frequent writing partner, Noah Baumbach (THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU, THE SQUID AND THE WHALE), could come and stay at Gipsy House to write the script. "He said, 'I think I'll feel the atmosphere and everything much better,'" Felicity Dahl recalls. "I said, I'd be delighted. So a few months later he and Noah moved into our spare bedrooms in the annex and stayed here for two weeks and they wrote the screenplay upstairs in one of the bedrooms and we fed and wined them royally and it was terrific fun, we had an amazing time. And off he went when the screenplay was finished and eventually sent me a copy. I read it that night and gave it to my grandson Luke to read the next day and he said, 'This is fantastic, you've got to do it', and so that was that."
"I think he felt inspired by being there," says producer Allison Abbate (IRON GIANT, CORPSE BRIDE) of Anderson's time at Gipsy House, "and if you ever go there, it is very inspiring. Just the legacy of Roald Dahl, the writing hut, and the countryside around it, were a huge part of the vision for how to create this film. There are lots of fun bits within the movie that are based on that area and their house."
"Gipsy House influenced him enormously," agrees Felicity Dahl. "I think he felt close to Roald here, and we have all the archives of every book Roald wrote. Every draft of every book is in the archives in the museum in the village and so he was able to look at early drafts of the book and also the most enchanting notebook Roald illustrated himself, he had the foxes pushing supermarket trolleys in it, and all those things moved him greatly, I think."
"Dahl was a very interesting man with many colors," notes Anderson. "We spent time at his house when we were writing and a lot of the details of his life found their way into our story and into the character of Mr. Fox. Dahl probably wrote Mr. Fox to be an animal version of himself, and so when we were writing it, without ever putting it into words, that was intuitively what we were doing."
"I think Roald would quite like to think of himself as Fantastic Mr. Fox," muses Felicity Dahl. "He loved helping people, particularly the underdog, but also because of the many medical tragedies that the family had been through, and he hated injustice. So yes, I think he would have liked to have been Mr. Fox, and he was in a certain way."
Inevitably, to turn Dahl's slim children's story into a film required changes. "Not enough happens to make a feature-length movie," Anderson explains, "so we knew we had to invent a lot. But as we did it, all we wanted to do was to try and write something that we hoped Roald Dahl would think was suitable and fit with what he has invented in the first place. We were trying to write a Roald Dahl movie. I mean, we're not going to think up the same jokes that Roald Dahl would, and we're bringing our own personalities to it. But our goal was to try and do a Roald Dahl story."
While Anderson and Baumbach retained the core of the tale, they expanded the story to include not only new scenes, but new characters. "His adaptation is pretty organic to the story," insists Abbate who feels all the additions adhere to the tone and the spirit of Dahl's original material. "And the new characters feel organic, too."
"It's not so much a beat for beat adaptation as it is an adaptation through the mind of a different writer," says producer Jeremy Dawson. "That being said, almost any line that is in the book, of a character speaking, pretty much ends up in our story. We even tried to use [Dahl's] chapter headings, like: 'Mr. Fox has a plan'."
"A lot of changes have been made because it's a small book, so it had to be embroidered," muses Felicity Dahl, "and I think Roald would have approved a great deal of what Wes and Noah wrote in order to make it a full-length feature. I think it's sad that Wes never met Roald because I think they would have got on very well. But maybe it was better that Wes didn't meet Roald because he met him through the book, through his passion for the book."
In Anderson's FANTASTIC MR. FOX, Mr. Fox, voiced by George Clooney (MICHAEL CLAYTON, OCEAN'S 11), is a former bird thief turned newspaper columnist who, against the advice of his lawyer, Badger (Bill Murray), moves his family into an expensive beech tree near three farms belonging to farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean. "The tree that he lives in is like a haughty midlife crisis decision," explains Abbate. "It's dangerous and it's above his means."
Needless to say, the temptation of living so close to the farms is too great for Mr. Fox to resist, and soon he's back to his old ways. Together with his opossum pal Kylie and sporty nephew Kristofferson, Mr. Fox is soon raiding the three farms for chickens, geese, turkeys and cider, putting himself on a collision course with the farmers who vow to rid themselves of this furry menace by any means necessary.
In Dahl's story, Mr. Fox has four unnamed cubs. "They're just sort of referred to, essentially," says Anderson who, together with Baumbach, decided to reduce that number to one, but flesh out the character with a back story and a substantial role in the overall narrative. And so Mr. Fox now has a son called Ash, a geeky misfit and comic book obsessive who doesn't relate to his father.
"He doesn't really know who he is and wants his father's love and approval," says long-time Anderson friend and collaborator Jason Schwartzman (RUSHMORE, FUNNY PEOPLE), who voices Ash. "I want to be a great athlete like my dad, and I want to be smart like him. I want recognition. My character's whole story line is coming to terms with who he is. And I think that's what the movie's about. It's being okay with who you are. And the thing that makes you different is the thing that makes you special. In the end, it turns out that my smallness and my differences save some lives."
"Wes wanted to try and build on the kid characters so there's another generation of foxes," explains Dawson of the introduction of Ash and his cousin Kristofferson. "And that creates a family dynamic."
"It's a family dynamic, or, more accurately, a dysfunctional family dynamic that we can recognize from Anderson's previous films. The story and the way it unfolds, the way he composes a shot and paces a sequence; they are all very Wes Anderson," notes Abbate.
"What I love about the movie is that Wes didn't change his style of directing and storytelling to fit the animated genre," agrees Schwartzman. "He just brought the genre to him and made his own movie as if it was another Wes Anderson film, which it is."
One quintessential Anderson addition to the story is whack-bat, an entirely new sport that's an amalgam of cricket, rounders and baseball and which is played by Ash and his cousin. "People were liking the kids characters," reveals Dawson of whack-bat's genesis, "and we thought, Let's try and expand them a little bit, add a few more scenes where the kids are not with the family, and Wes came up with this. Once he'd written the scene, we retroactively decided what the game would look like and how we'd play it."
The rules of the game are outlined in a hilarious sequence by Ash's Coach Skip, a ferret voiced by Anderson's long-time friend and collaborator Owen Wilson (MARLEY & ME). "It has lots of ridiculously complicated rules and lots of physical funny activity," laughs Abbate. "Symbolically it is about Ash trying to get his father's attention. Mr. Fox was an amazing athlete, and won all the trophies in whack-bat, and so Ash failing or succeeding at the game means a lot to him, and plays into the ending of the film a little bit."
First seen in Albert E. Smith and J. Stuart Blackton's 1898 film THE HUMPTY DUMPTY CIRCUS, stop-motion animation is one of the oldest forms of special effects, and the meticulous, labor-intensive process hasn't changed much since its introduction more than a century ago. The technique involves the frame-by-frame manipulation of a three-dimensional object -- a puppet, a model or even an actor -- to bring it to life and make it appear to move. Typically there are 24 frames of film per second of screen time, and so the object's body, head, arms, legs, hands, fingers, eyes, ears, and mouth must be moved in infinitesimally small increments between frames, which, when the film is projected, creates the illusion of movement. Read more
Although Anderson and Baumbach's FANTASTIC MR. FOX script retained the book's English countryside setting and its English farmers, all the animal characters are American. At the very least they're voiced by American actors. "The animals tend to have American accents and the humans are English," explains Abbate. "No one knows what accent an animal would have if it talked and animals have nationalities. We started with George Clooney as Mr. Fox and that kind of set the rule to keep them all consistent." Read more
PRODUCTON DESIGN:SETS AND COSTUMES
When it comes to the look of his films, Wes Anderson takes a complete hands-on approach to art direction and design; the result is amazing, inimitable confections of meticulously crafted nostalgia and intricate set dressing. FANTASTIC MR. FOX is no exception. Read more
To flesh out Lowry's team's character designs into fully realized three-dimensional creations, the production approached acclaimed puppet makers Ian MacKinnon and Peter Saunders whose credits include CORPSE BRIDE as well as countless television shows and commercials. Based in Manchester, England, MacKinnon and Saunders were charged with creating a series of puppets in what is termed "hero scale", which is the standard puppet size used by stop-motion animators because of its versatility of movement and ability to handle the largest variety of facial expressions. Ranging in size from a couple of inches (in the case of Rickety the mouse), up to eighteen inches (for Rat), these "hero scale" puppets were sculpted over armatures -- movable metal skeletons made typically from steel or aluminium with ball and socket joints -- that allow the animators to position them as required.Read more
Principal photography on FANTASTIC MR. FOX began on June 9, 2008 at Three Mills Studios in East London, a week later than planned after an unexploded Second World War bomb was discovered in a nearby river, forcing the studio and surrounding properties to be evacuated for several days. Once all the puppets were completed, they were turned over to an international crew of 30 animators who then spent the next year making these puppets act, under the close guidance of Anderson, animation director Mark Gustafson and animation supervisor Mark Waring. Read more
Despite his insistence on old-fashioned techniques for shooting FANTASTIC MR. FOX, it was modern technology that enabled Anderson to direct the film 24 hours a day from any location. "Doing this sort of movie, it's a long, long process and it's very detail-oriented," he reflects. "There are a million decisions, more than a live-action movie, because everything has to be made. People are making decisions not in a moment-to-moment basis but in a frame-to-frame basis and everything is just more intricate. And so half of the process of making the movie was figuring out how to make the movie, and how to manage all this information and to make sure we get onto the screen what we want to get on there, because there are 29 units going at once. That's insane. I'm accustomed to one and that's usually completely overwhelming. But we had such a great group of people and we figured out a way."Read more
ABOUT THE FILMMAKERS
WES ANDERSON (Director/Co-writer/Producer) was born in Houston, Texas and attended college at the University of Texas at Austin. He is also the director and co-writer of BOTTLE ROCKET, RUSHMORE, THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU, THE DARJEELING LIMITED and the short HOTEL CHEVALIER.
NOAH BAUMBACH (Co-writer) wrote and directed MARGOT AT THE WEDDING, THE SQUID AND THE WHALE and KICKING AND SCREAMING. With Anderson, he co-wrote THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU and he is a contributor to The New Yorker magazine's "Shouts and Murmurs" department. His next film, GREENBERG, will be released in 2010 by Focus Features.
ROALD DAHL (Author) was born in 1916 in Wales of Norwegian parents. He spent his childhood in England and, at age eighteen, went to work for the Shell Oil Company in Africa. When World War II broke out, he joined the Royal Air Force and became a fighter pilot. At the age of twenty-six he moved to Washington, D.C., and it was there he began to write. His first short story, which recounted his adventures in the war, was bought by The Saturday Evening Post, and so began a long and illustrious career.
After establishing himself as a writer for adults, Roald Dahl began writing children's stories in 1960 while living in England with his family. His first stories were written as entertainment for his own children, to whom many of his books are dedicated.
Roald Dahl is now considered one of the most beloved storytellers of our time. Although he passed away in 1990, his popularity continues to increase as his fantastic novels, including James and the Giant Peach, Matilda, The BFG and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, delight an ever-growing legion of fans.
Learn more about Roald Dahl ion the official Roald Dahl website: www.roalddahl.com
THE ART OF ADAPTATION
THE ART OF ANIMATION