'Fantastic Mr. Fox'

Wes Anderson slyly cast George Clooney in 'Fantastic Mr. Fox'

Mini-him? Mr. Fox dresses a lot like . . . Mr. Anderson!
Mini-him? Mr. Fox dresses a lot like . . . Mr. Anderson! (Greg Williams/fox Searchlight Pictures)
By Michael Cavna
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 29, 2009

Like a gifted child at playtime, filmmaker Wes Anderson can occasionally seem consumed by cinematic toys -- a fertile imagination giddy with his trains, hydroplanes and foreign automobiles. His trademark preoccupations populate his first movie, "Bottle Rocket," straight through 2007's "The Darjeeling Limited."

Anderson, however, well knows that all the vehicles and curios and visual embellishments in the world do not transport the audience. To accomplish that, you have to hire a George Clooney who can.

"That's one thing: I wanted to cast him," says Anderson, speaking from New York shortly before his animated film, "Fantastic Mr. Fox" -- based on Roald Dahl's beloved tale -- opened nationwide Wednesday. "I've loved his work in so many movies." Off the top of his head, Anderson cites "Three Kings," "Michael Clayton," even a memorable episode of "ER."

After two fairly tepidly received films ("Darjeeling" and "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou"), the director fortuitously had landed the roguish actor to voice the title role of the thieving yet charming volpone. But even after casting Clooney, Anderson says he did not entirely appreciate what he had.

That realization came after some of the voice stars -- including Anderson regulars Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman -- headed to a Connecticut farm to record their lines outdoors. It was there that Clooney -- veteran of suave, talky con men from "Ocean's 11" to "O Brother, Where Art Thou" -- lent his textured talents.

"When we went and recorded on the farm in Connecticut, I got documentary recording of some of these roles," says Anderson, his hair a notably russet, foxlike tint. "The thing I did not realize -- until only afterward, when I went to the cutting room -- was how much [Clooney] brings to the performance and how much we'd already gotten. For the animators, these voices are their key inspiration."

The Oscar-winning Clooney voices a bushy-tailed burglar who settles down into duller life as a family man and a questionably read newspaper columnist (no, that's not yet necessarily redundant) before his midlife crisis -- at least in fox years -- compels him to filch again from three menacing farmers. Anderson, who expanded Dahl's story considerably, says "Fox" was the first book he ever owned -- or at least the first one he ever put his name in. Now, with "Fox" the film, critics are saying that Anderson, stylistically, has made the story his own -- with droll irony and cultural reference points galore, the Andersonian signature is all over it.

The filmmaker says he was inspired, too, by Meryl Streep, who voices Mr. Fox's wife, Felicity (named for Dahl's second wife).

"I recorded with her in Paris," says Anderson, whose only previous experience with feature-film animation was limited footage in "The Life Aquatic." "It was the two of us playing scenes. . . . I mean, I got to play scenes opposite Meryl Streep. And I felt like she actually changed my approach to the movie. She brought so much emotion, it was [like]: This is where it's got to be. The stakes can be higher."

Sessions with Streep were part of the continual stoking of his talents. Anderson co-wrote the "Fox" screenplay -- with "The Squid and the Whale" director Noah Baumbach -- after being inspired by a pilgrimage to Gipsy House, Dahl's home in Buckinghamshire, England, in 2000. (Dahl died in 1990.)

"It was muggy and gray and colorless -- the house wasn't, but the landscape was. . . . The place was fascinating," says Anderson, noting Dahl (who's gifted Hollywood with Willy Wonka and "James and the Giant Peach") is a hero.

"Fox" has a striking palette -- it's a literal moveable feast of autumnal tones, a Thanksgiving pageant of real-fur textures and watercolor skies. Anderson says the Dahl house, his garden -- even a tree resembling the Fox home in the film -- provided visual spark.

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