Fantastic Mr. FoxFANTASTIC MR. FOX

Film scholars widely agree that 1939 remains the strongest year ever for American movies. But I'm starting to think that, as the decades pass, 2009 might be seen as a comparable year for animated movies.

With The Princess & the Frog yet to open nationally, we've already been treated to first-rate offerings in Up, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Disney's A Christmas Carol, 9, and Ponyo, plus several releases -- including Coraline and Monsters vs. Aliens -- that have plenty of ardent admirers, even if I'm not among them. It's practically been an embarrassment of animated riches, and for my money, none has been quite as rich as Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox, a comedy so unusual, so clever, so hilarious, and so offhandedly touching that calling it the best animated movie of 2009 thus far doesn't quite do it justice. The best movie of 2009 thus far -- now we're getting a little closer.

Animated features can, of course, make for wondrous cinematic entertainment, but outside of Ralph Bakshi's cartoons and Robert Zemeckis' motion-capture behemoths, you almost never sense in them a distinct directorial presence. (Pixar helmers John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter, and Brad Bird all do incredible work, but can anyone honestly tell one director's style from another's?) From its first minute, though, Fantastic Mr. Fox is clearly a Wes Anderson film, and your fondness for it will most certainly depend on your tolerance for the director's uniquely offbeat blend of wry wit, silent longing, and slaphappy silliness.

Some will no doubt find the film -- with its deliberately quaint stop-motion animation and affected compositions -- precious, quirky, and somewhat alienating. Others will casually, and inaccurately, dismiss it as "cute." And some might be appalled to discover that this film based on a children's book (by Roald Dahl), like Spike Jonze's recent Where the Wild Things Are, hasn't necessarily been designed for children. But those who've been in thrall to Anderson's talent over the years might be nearly beside themselves with happiness; somehow, with his first animated film, the writer/director of Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Darjeeling Limited has crafted the most purely Wes Anderson Wes Anderson movie of his career.

In his tale of the "reformed" chicken thief Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney), his intensely patient spouse Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep), their oddball son Ash (Jason Schwartzman), and their assorted critter companions, Anderson and co-screenwriter Noah Baumbach explore themes of marriage, parenthood, childhood rivalries, middle-aged discontent, and mortality, and do so with a lightness of touch that's downright exhilarating. With its autumnal hues and vividly etched textures, the movie is stunning to look at, and given the director's adoration for half-forgotten musical treasures from the past, it's also stunning to listen to. But there's nothing passive about the experience; the film is so fiercely intelligent and confident that you watch it with keen alertness, always awaiting the next piece of visual magic, or brilliant actor reading, or inventive, resonant detail.

And good God but is this movie funny! The script is filled with outrageous dialogue, non sequiturs, and patches of tongue-twisting banter. (Anderson and Baumbach deserve an award for Owen Wilson's loquacious explanation of an impossible-to-follow game called Whackbat.) But you just as often roar at its moments of silent comedy; the riotous, glazed-eyeball stare of Mr. Fox's pal Kylie is the gift that keeps on giving. For fans of the director, Fantastic Mr. Fox is unmissable, and I'd call it my favorite Wes Anderson movie to date if I didn't think The Royal Tenenbaums was perfection; in one 90-minute package, you get huge laughs, unexpected tears, thematic power, and a kickass soundtrack. All this, and Bill Murray, too. Fantastic.


Seth Green, John Travolta, and Robin Williams in Old DogsOLD DOGS

For more than 10 years now, I've considered Robin Williams lucky to have starred in Patch Adams, because no matter how terrible his subsequent movies have been (and there've been some real stinkers), at least you could leave them saying, "Well, it wasn't as bad as Patch Adams." Old Dogs is worse than Patch Adams. Old Dogs is worse than just about anything. A horrific, aggressively unfunny Disney slapstick about two bachelors (Williams and John Travolta) forced to care for seven-year-old twins, director Walt Becker's outing is a stomach-churning mixture of sickly sentiment, lame geriatric jokes, and ridiculously dated references -- The Chariots of Fire theme? Seriously?! -- and it's so frequently, outlandishly ultra-violent that the movie's label as a "family comedy" seems quite deranged. (When characters suffer golf balls to the nuts or engage in "prison-rules Frisbee," the ear-splitting thwack!-ing sounds remind you of nothing so much as Jim Caviezel's torture in The Passion of the Christ.)

It's impossible to feel bad for Williams or Travolta, who routinely choose to star in crap of this ilk. But what in heaven's name did Kelly Preston, Matt Dillon, Seth Green, Justin Long, Rita Wilson, Luis Guzmán and Dax Shepard (both wisely uncredited), Ann-Margret, Amy Sedaris, and -- in a truly unexpected cameo -- the late Bernie Mac ever do to deserve this? (Poor Bernie should be allowed to rest in peace.) I could go on and on about the mind-numbing awfulness of Old Dogs, but there's little point; at the packed screening I attended, there were cackles of delight from the opening soccer-ball-to-the-face gag to the climactic medication-mishap tableau. Allow me to mention, however, the woman and two pre-teen girls who sat a few seats away from me. The woman was in gleeful hysterics almost throughout, but the girls stared at the screen and barely made a peep. I've never felt so hopeful about the next generation of moviegoers.


Planet 51PLANET 51

Faced with the cineplex options of Ninja Assassin and Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day, I decided that watching my dad carve the turkey was enough Thanksgiving-weekend carnage for my tastes, and instead saw the animated comedy Planet 51. I can't yet say whether it was the preferable choice, but it was certainly a relaxing one -- so relaxing that I may have nodded off once or twice.

Set on a distant planet resembling 1950s-era America, albeit an America populated by lime-green creatures with webbed feet and antennae, the film is a moderately clever spin on B-grade sci-fi flicks of the period, and it features some really smart gags. (There's a great bit here in which classroom "duck and cover" drills are mocked, and I loved the movie's extraterrestrial canine, which looks like H.R. Giger's Alien and urinates acid. Trust me, it's funnier than it sounds.) The animation is impressive, the colors are vibrant, and there are agreeable vocal turns by the likes of Dwayne Johnson, Justin Long, Gary Oldman, and John Cleese; overall, it's a fine time. It's just not a terribly interesting one. Planet 51's main storyline, in which Johnson's stranded astronaut attempts a return to Earth, is so blatantly modeled after E.T.'s, and there are so many nods to other science-fiction works -- War of the Worlds and WALL·E in particular -- that you eventually realize the movie is just a conglomeration of riffs, and doesn't have an original idea in its head. Adventures are had, romance blossoms, lessons about friendship and believing in yourself are learned, and everything happens exactly as you expect it to, all of which might make it a perfect entertainment for future Thanksgivings; you can watch it on the couch after your heavy meal, take intermittent naps, and know you're not missing a thing.

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