"Quirky." "Eccentric." "Whimsical." Critics trot out the synonyms for "playful" and "odd" when talking about Wes Anderson.
A 40-year-old director of wistful character comedies peopled with lovable screwballs - "Rushmore," "The Royal Tenenbaums" - he brings it all on himself, inviting the label "patron saint of moody hipster comedies" that Newsweek hangs on him.
Blame it on his "sensibility," those sweet, damaged man-children, that funky folk music score and those primary colors. It's the Anderson touch that shimmers off the screen even when he's not making a movie with real actors, when he's directing, by long-distance, an English animated comedy based on Roald Dahl's darkly amusing "Fantastic Mr. Fox."
It is already one of Anderson's most acclaimed films ("An adventure in pure imagination" - Rolling Stone) and may someday be his most beloved. You can even call it his "comeback," as The L.A. Weekly did.
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He lives in Paris these days, but we reached him in Boston.
Every review, to a one, notes how this movie really reflects your sensibilities as an artist. What do you think they mean by that?
I think they're talking about the limits of my own imagination. My approach to this material was always "how do we get Roald Dahl?" And "how might Roald Dahl have done it?" It's filtered through me, so if someone knows my other movies, they will recognize me in it.
Which came first, this Dahl story about an ingenious fox who brings the wrath of farmers down on all the other wild animals or the desire to do something in this antique style of movie-making, stop-motion animation?
Oh, probably the style was what came to me, even though "Fantastic Mr. Fox" was the first Roald Dahl book that I owned. The moment I thought "I'd like to do an animated film," "Mr. Fox" was the book I wanted to film.
What stuck with you about the book, all these years?
The character Mr. Fox is a classic Roald Dahl character in that he rescues everybody through his cleverness and his unique way of thinking, but he's the guy who CAUSED all the problems in the first place. That whole Dahl way of thinking is what drew me into it.
The Brits are giving you a hard time for 'running roughshod' over Roald Dahl's story. Have you run roughshod, Americanized it?
The most American thing about it is me. It's a personal project, so it hasn't been Hollywood-ized. And it was made with the blessing of Dahl's family each step of the way. It was made in England, set in England, with an interest in Dahl's rural British world.
In recent years, we've seen this most handmade of animation forms move away from the things that make it distinct - going digital, losing texture. You went out of your way to avoid that with Mr. Fox. Why?
Part of what drew me to stop-motion (in which animated models are molded and moved and photographed, as they move, one frame at a time) was that great texture. Films like "Corpse Bride" or "Coraline" are wonderful, but the look is very smooth and refined, and the puppets being used are very sophisticated. But the surfaces are too smooth! Ours is a bit more old-fashioned, where it is more about the energy and the texture. It's old-fashioned. I admit it.
The Los Angeles Times did a piece last month noting the unorthodox way you directed this, not actually showing up on the sets, and the complaints the crew had with this. What did that distance give you that being in Britain during the shoot would not?
I didn't realize how involved I was going to want to be. With a live-action movie, you do one shot after another, a sprint over the course of a day. A movie like this, you might have 25 or 30 shots going simultaneously and another 10 being set up. Sets being built, puppets being worked on, plus the editorial team who are with me all the time. My day is bouncing back and forth from unit to unit to unit. I could see, by computer, every shot, everything that was being done. I could call and make changes or even act out some way I wanted a character to react or act, and send the video. It's a very different rhythm, as everything moves forward very, very slowly. It's very hard to keep your eye on everything at once, with people from all sides, asking me questions. Most of my work would be done at the computer, anyway. All-consuming, but exciting.
What are the life lessons in this movie, which will be seen by children, mostly, when it reaches theaters?
For me, as a child, I always responded to stories of someone searching, trying to find their place. I love stories about kids who don't quite fit in. I loved "The Bad News Bears," for instance, a whole team of misfits.
Our movie has a child who is struggling but who hits on something. To me, the big metaphor here is that Mr. Fox wants everybody to remember that they're "wild animals." That they need to stay true to their natures, which is what makes them different from each other. One's an attorney, one's a newspaper reporter, one's a chef, but at heart, they're still wild animals.