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Space for a Double Feature: "Fantastic Mr. Fox" & "A Christmas Carol"

In 2009 two of America's most distinctive and high-profile auteurs perfect their film worlds through the total freedom offered by animation.

If total artifice gave renegades like Avery, Fleischer, Jones, Oshii, a redoubt from which to craft their eccentric visions away from the plastic inadequacies of photographic realism, the post-Pixar, post-Star Wars ascendency of animation in all its forms offers new routes of total control for artists who haven't felt the biting pang of expressive urgency or the institutional need to work in supposedly sub-artistic media to get their giddy visions seen.

Witness 2009, a year where two of America's most distinctive and high-profile auteurs perfect their film worlds through the total freedom offered from removing humans from the films and focusing on manufacturing cinema.  Robert Zemeckis's 3D'd, IMAX'd, motion capture'd, CGI'd chamber piece A Christmas Carol explodes in cheery horror in a kind of Disneyland ride of an old man's nightmare, letting the digital camera define space in flowing, flying, time-warping, tunnel-vision'd fits that consistute the collective bad dreams of Jancsó, Preminger, Lang, and Murnau, a terrifying spatial freedom swathed in a queasy expressionist realism of the digital palette.  Meanwhile, in the land of self-satisfaction, Wes Anderson is approaching the event horizon of his artistry in the stop-motion'd adaptation of Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mr. Fox, probably the closest we will get to the ideal Anderson film featuring a camera moving along x and y axes across his own hand built dioramas—or until MoMA dedicates an entire exhibit to his boyhood art and perplexed exploration of father figures.

Fox would be best as a radio show, letting the voice talent murmur, babble, caress Dahl-Anderson-Baumbach's words as they do without the needs for dramatic movement, which leaves the film as film superfluous with disposable jealous misfit children—sorely, touchingly voiced—and a misunderstood and underappreciated renegade father—Clooney channeling this Wes type better than Murray...one can imagine the former in manic fits of self-centered warmth talking to himself endlessly.  With the voices, only the light—ember-like with plastic shadows of realism—and the endless, hyper-nuanced detail—down to fur tremors and unabashed problems of puppet-scale—keep up in earnest glee with the overwrought craftsman-enthusiasm and pat family drama on display.  I longed for these "wild animals" to lend the film some scurrying tenacity and will to survive (cf. the seaon's other fox movie, Antichrist, for the true cartoon sensibility).

Zemickis may not scurry—like Resnais he glides when moving—because A Christmas Carol does move so much as pierce and peer.  Its intense look—especially in super-bravura Ghosts of Christmas sequences, with single-take thrill ride adventures and a transparent-crystal ball floor—seems required for the murky, dusty gloam of an isolated, digital 19th century London.  He brings the city to a life that is spatial, not real; each digital box perfectly lit (exquisite verisimilitude in lighting another commonality between Carol and Fox, gas light vs. countryside sundown!) but a little jailhouse for its inhabitants: no one lives outside Scrooge’s parsimonious mindscape.

In direct contrast to Zemeckis's extravagant reach towards donut-and-bowtie shaped camera movements free to suggest every emotional, thematic, and thrilling potential from the spaces he creates, Anderson has finally created a film without space, where every shot is a separately created, box'd, golden-glowing, and animated element.  The vocal talent—especially Clooney's head fox—shines in uneasy relation to the detailed, isolated brilliance of every object and the autumnal light that graces it with the caress of craftsmen adoring the spectacular and disposable knickknacks they've spent many an off-hour evening hobbeying in their garages after work. The voices sly, handspringing, a kind of patter to assuage the brutal cuts that demarcate the limits of each of Anderson's lovingly crafted boxes, they are imminently funnier but less touching than Zemickis' employment of a mere handful of voices (mainly Gary Oldman and Jim Carrey, whose eldery pastiche precisely captures the actor's unstable and uncertain career) for a far more intimate feel despite all of 19th century London to fly through.

Since Shrek, American animation has been little but voices in space—the new form of animation, the explosion of the z-axis, no more planes of action but coordinates to anchor celebrity voices, a trend emphasized especially with the (manufactured) phenomenon of 3D theatrical releases.  With a sigh of relief this season we get two films that, in their own ways, take animation as a serious exploration of space and voices, though one wonders which is more important for the films, the means or the end.  Two video game movies, Wes Anderson's side-scroller and Robert Zemeckis's interactive cut-scene approach, end up being among the most interesting American cinema of the year, both self-impressed but one more humble than the other, ironically the one coming from classic literature, cynically pitched at a holiday crowd, employing the latest bang, and exploring the results of all that buck.  In the cinema, does it all come down to space?  Fox winks drolly and leaves nothing behind but flat, empty cardboard boxes, but after the Christmas drama is done one is left with a world you can move around in and sense the presence of ghosts.

Danny, I realize you are addressing the animation in each film more so than the actual quality of the narrative, but FOX winking “drolly”, “flat”, and “empty”? Anderson’s film is full of vim and vigor, spirit and soul, it pops with a dynamic contrast between human emotions and wild animal instincts. I saw a film full of life in every frame, where the detail compliments the characters’ conflicts and developments. I haven’t seen the Zemeckis film yet, so I can’t comment on it, but FOX seems to me one of the most experimental narratives mainstream Hollywood has released in years, and for Anderson a major resurgence after the self-indulgent Life Aquatic and Darjeeling Limited.
Hi Glenn, how’ve you been? I think you perhaps misread my comment; I did not say the Anderson film was flat and empty, but rather left behind flat and empty boxes. I’m with you on the spirit and vigor of FOX, probably it’s best qualities.
Oh, I gotcha, Danny. Perhaps I let my complete and utter love for this movie skew my reading of your thoughts. Very interesting juxtaposition of these two films. You’re the only one to make me want to actually see the Zemeckis, a film I’d written off completely.
Excellent stuff. I’ll echo the above sentiment that I never expected anyone or any writing to convince me I wanted to go see A CHRISTMAS CAROL, but, here it is.

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