Everybody loved the 1971 film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factorystarring Gene Wilder. Everybody except for the guy who wrote the original (and the screenplay): Roald Dahl. "He hated it," says Lucy Dahl, 44, the author's youngest daughter. "In fact, I heard he wanted to get his name off the credits, but they wouldn't let him." Dahl also didn't care for the 1990 version of The Witches, and if he were still alive, we're not sure he'd have been impressed by Matilda(directed by Danny DeVito), James and the Giant Peach(the peach looked more like Cinderella's pumpkin), or Tim Burton's Wonkaremake (with Johnny Depp channeling Michael Jackson). "My father always hated his books being made into films because he wrote in a style that is very difficult for a filmmaker to reproduce," says Lucy. "A lot of filmmakers have come up against the problem of how to keep what he does so well: funny tragedy." (Article continued below...)
Which brings us to Fantastic Mr. Fox, directed by the patron saint of moody hipster comedies, Wes Anderson. You wouldn't think that Dahl and Anderson would be a happy cinematic coupling. "Dahl was so skilled at inventing plots," Anderson says. "I don't know if my movies have been distinguished by the strength of their plots. I think some of them are questionable if the plots exist at all." There's a moodiness about Anderson's animated Mr. Fox—with Bill Murray the voice of an uptight badger, how could there not be?—but it melts into Dahl's story like butter on toast. Dahl's fable is about a mischievous fox (George Clooney in the movie) trapped in his hole by three gun-toting farmers who are fed up with his swiping their chickens and food. Anderson takes this existential setup and fills it out with an obsessively protective Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep), his obsessively competitive son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman), and a collection of oddballs who feel like they're plucked from an all-animal version of The Royal Tenenbaums.
Mr. Fox doesn't just rescue Dahl's legacy on film. In a year stuffed with kid-lit movie adaptations, it's the only one to successfully reach out to children and adults. Anderson (like Dahl) doesn't want to exclude the kids who love the original. His Mr. Fox doesn't traffic in apocalyptic imagery (like Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs) or infidelity (a theme in Where the Wild Things Are). Yet one look at the bitter, and bitterly funny, death of a rat (Willem Dafoe) shows that Anderson doesn't sanitize the original tone, either. Mr. Fox outfoxes us all.