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Continuing the resurgence of family films

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Posted: Saturday, December 5, 2009 12:00 am

If one evaluated a year in film based on the overall quality of productions, then 2009 could very well be regarded as a forgettable year.

We've seen quite a lot of mediocrity from the studio system in the past 11 months, and looking at a jam-packed theater marquee the other day, I was disheartened to find only a few films that the proverbial "reasonable person" would have any interest in seeing.

(I do not include in this list the inexplicably popular "The Blind Side," which was probably bad enough when it was called "Radio." You see, the lesson is that we ain't the ones been teaching him — he's the one been teaching us. Aaaw …)

Thankfully, I tend to judge a year based on the quality of its best films.

For instance, I honestly don't remember if 2001 offered consistently entertaining movies week after week, but I definitely remember being generally dazzled by titles like "Memento," "Monster's Ball," "In the Bedroom," "Ghost World," "A Beautiful Mind," "Moulin Rouge!," "Gosford Park" and half a dozen great films, and it's the specific memories of seeing those movies for the first time that matter.

Likewise for 2009; years from now, my discontentment with, say, the summer movie season will be largely forgotten, but vivid recollections of having my mind blown apart by the likes of "Inglourious Basterds," "Watchmen," "Paranormal Activity" and "Antichrist" (not to mention about 10 other genuinely great movies) will forever remain.

By that criteria, this has been a pretty damn good year for film — and with "The Fantastic Mr. Fox" now playing in wide release, things just got even better.

Looking at a draft of my year-end top 10 list (to be completed once I see about 25 more of the year's most promising films), I find that so far, the best films of 2009 can be divided into three categories, which include such downbeat classifications as horror movies and violent essays on human aggression.

"The Fantastic Mr. Fox"

**** (out of four)
2009, Wes Anderson, U.S., PG

But amazingly enough, the list is dominated by family films — that rarely worthwhile, always suspect genre that I usually regard as my kryptonite. This year, however, has seen an astounding resurgence in family-oriented entertainment (or, at least, what can ostensibly be called such).

Between Spike Jonze's "Where the Wild Things Are," Hayao Miyazaki's "Ponyo," Pixar's "Up" and now Wes Anderson's animated adaptation of "The Fantastic Mr. Fox" (not to mention Disney's 3-D re-release of the "Toy Story" films, and their Digital Age updating of "A Christmas Carol"), this should unquestionably be regarded as the best period for family entertainment in decades.

It's not the start of a "revolution," per se, as we've benefited from what are likely one-shot anomalies from the traditionally adult-oriented auteurs Jonze and Anderson, but this is certainly an encouraging trend for viewers who treasure family fare when it's done right.

And "The Fantastic Mr. Fox" hits absolutely every note spot-on.

Based on Roald Dahl's story, it follows the exploits of the sly Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney), a good-natured family man who is having trouble keeping his domestic life in order.

Money is tight for the chicken thief turned journalist, so in order to provide food for Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) and their maladjusted son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman), he decides to return to his life of crime for one last big score.

In the process, he draws the ire of three local farmers who band together to retaliate by destroying the fox's home and family at any cost. The all-out war threatens Mr. Fox's entire community, so it's up to him to outwit the farmers and reassert his role as the local hero.

Right from the opening frame, the movie looks incredible. It has been animated using a stop-motion process — one of the most traditional methods of animation there is — but it looks completely unlike anything I've ever seen before.

The character movements are often intentionally rushed and jerky, like the stop-motion of old, and combined with the seemingly monochromatic landscapes, this creates a very unique, rather trippy effect that had me immediately engaged. (It helps that there is always stuff going on at the edges of the frame, and I'm sure I'll have to see the film several more times before I catch all the sight gags.)

Writer/director Anderson has received public flak from his animation team, who claim that he did not properly partake in actual on-site work, but it seems to me that the film is infused — to its very core — with Anderson's trademark visual style and general irreverence. It's easily his best work since 1998's "Rushmore," and a gigantic improvement over his most recent disappointments.

Anderson's sharp screenplay is brought to life by the talented cast, which also includes the inestimable Michael Gambon as the farmer ringleader (at the one point the film starts to drag, during a musical number, Gambon shows up at the last second to deliver a priceless, entirely unexpected punch line) and Bill Murray as attorney Mr. Badger, whose ridiculous first encounter with Mr. Fox had me laughing/crying for a full two minutes.

The movie is full of throwaway gags that would constitute major jokes in a less witty film, and there's no question that this is the funniest movie of the past couple years. Children are likely to groove on the talking animals and madcap action, but older viewers will no doubt appreciate the constant rat-a-tat rhythm of Anderson's funky yet sophisticated sense of humor.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jasonwallis@comcast.net.

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