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'Fantastic Mr. Fox': A toast to stop-motion animation

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Fantastic-Mr-Fox_dl I adored Fantastic Mr. Fox, which opened this weekend in Los Angeles and New York, and expands nationwide on Thanksgiving. We could discuss how working in a new medium has rejuvenated director Wes Anderson’s creative juices, or how all of the voice performance were delivered in the same slightly ironic, yet still heartfelt tone, or how composer Alexandre Desplat wrote one of the most delectable scores in quite some time (as part of a soundtrack that already makes exemplary use of the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, and Jarvis Cocker). But really, above all else, it’s the film’s stop-motion animation that deserves the most attention.

For those unfamiliar with stop-motion animation, the painstakingly tedious process involves photographing a small puppet, moving it ever so slightly, and then photographing it again. The animator does this over and over and over, and when all of the photographed images are displayed continuously (as in a flip book), we wind up with the illusion of movement. The technique has been used for everything from animating the title character in the 1933 version of King Kong to designing entire stop-motion movies such as The Nightmare Before Christmas and Wallace & Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit.

Since stop-motion animation uses actual miniature sets, props, and character dolls, it feels tangibly real. While watching Fantastic Mr. Fox, I wanted to step into its universe to examine Mrs. Fox’s intricate oil paintings and read Mr. Fox’s newspaper column. As impressive as Pixar’s CGI animated films are, I’ve never felt myself drawn into those worlds in the same way. It’s strangely comforting to see the hairs of Mr. Fox’s face bristle as he moves, as if we were deliberately being reminded that human hands were involved in manipulating these one-foot-tall characters. This also explains why, for instance, I’ll always consider the puppet Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back as inherently more “real” than the acrobatic CGI-ized Yoda from Attack of the Clones. Digital effects can show the audience anything a filmmaker can imagine, but we still have to believe in it, and that’s where a process as archaic as stop-motion animation manages to have an edge.

PopWatchers, were you as impressed with Fantastic Mr. Fox‘s animation style as I was? Or would you have enjoyed a CGI Mr. Fox just as much?

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