Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox gets a dual-format special edition from The Criterion Collection, making this their first animated title since their 1992 Laserdisc release of Akira. Presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 this new high-definition transfer supervised by Wes Anderson is delivered in 1080p/24hz on the dual-layer Blu-ray. A standard definition anamorphic transfer is provided on the first dual-layer DVD.
The transfer doesn’t look all that different in comparison to the original Fox Blu-ray, which is certainly not a bad thing. Detail levels are still exceptional, allowing the viewer to make out every individual hair on the various puppets used throughout the film, even in the long shots. Anderson and the animators also fill every shot with a large assortment of props and materials, and the fine details in all of that craftsmanship pops through very clearly. Colours are limited to warmer autumn tones such as reds, yellows, and oranges, but they’re crisp and vibrant with excellent saturation. Black levels are rich and inky, with fantastic shadow delineation and no problems with crushing.
The film was shot digitally (which, as the supplements demonstrate, is a huge advantage when doing stop-motion animation) so there really isn’t much in the way of source issues. The only mild problem I noticed was a slight bit of banding in a darker scene with a lone light source. But since this is also an issue on the Fox Blu-ray I’m going to venture a guess this mild artifact is inherent to the source material. Other than this slight (and I mean slight) problem there are no other digital artifacts: no noise, no compression, no pixilation, no nothing. Just a crisp, clean presentation.
The DVD’s transfer looks about as good as it can. I never watched the DVD of the Fox release, but I doubt it was any better than Criterion’s. It does lack in the detail department in comparison to the Blu-ray, though, noticeable in both close-ups and longer shots, but it’s a limitation of the format. Compression is also noticeable but not too heavy. In every other respect it’s still pretty sharp, renders colours nicely and also presents strong black levels. Upscaled it comes out looking pretty good.
In all, it’s a great looking presentation, delivering a clear and sharp image. It doesn’t offer much of an upgrade over the Fox release, if any, but in reality it would have been hard to top it anyways. 10/10
All Blu-ray screen captures come from the source disc and have been shrunk from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed to conserve space. While they are not exact representations they should offer a general idea of overall video quality.
The Fox Blu-ray only contained a number of promotional featurettes (which have been carried over to this release) and nothing else. Criterion throws on a number of features, all of which are rather good, but even after going through everything it still felt to be lacking something.
The first feature is a cute 1-minute introduction that may have been made exclusively for Criterion; the opening titles suggest this but Criterion is never actually mentioned in the intro, unlike other intros for Criterion releases of Anderson’s work. In the intro a stop-motion animated Petey (voiced by Jarvis Cocker) gives an overview of the film we are about to watch, introducing the book and the film’s main characters.
The set then includes an audio commentary featuring Wes Anderson. I’m not sure why this is but I’m usually not overly fond of his commentaries when he’s doing them solo, like with The Royal Tenenbaums, and I had a similar experience here. Here he talks about the growing pains in learning to do an animated film and what drew him to adapt Dahl’s story, a favourite of his as a child (it sounds like the digging that occurs in the story had a lot of appeal to him.) The writing process was a little difficult since the film would have been really short if they stayed true to the novel, so he explains how some of the added story points came about. He also talks about the casting decisions, recording the voices in actual locations, some influences (a helicopter that appears throughout was based on the helicopter in Magnum P.I. for instance) and offers a few amusing anecdotes. I was especially amused with how Owen Wilson came to be involved: turns out Anderson came up with his scene late in the development process and while he had Wilson on the phone to record the audio commentary for Criterion’s Bottle Rocket release (Anderson actually says it was the track for The Darjeeling Limited but since that track was recorded after Fantastic Mr. Fox’s release and Wilson wasn’t on it, I’m assuming he meant Bottle Rocket) he had Wilson record his lines for the scene. There’s other interesting stories and Anderson does express disappointment in the film’s performance, especially since he put so much time into it. He hasn’t let the experience faze him, though, and he says he would certainly do another animated film, though don’t expect a sequel to this film since it performed so poorly. It’s not a horrible track by any means and Anderson covers a lot of ground about the animation process and his experience but sometimes the track can come off a bit too clinical for my tastes, though that maybe shouldn’t surprise me. Also, though the notes for the track don’t indicate this commentary being exclusive to Criterion, he does mention them frequently throughout the track, and even thanks them for allowing him to revisit the film (as I assume Fox had no interest.)
The next supplement is a rather big one: the entire animatic created for the film and mentioned briefly by Anderson in his commentary. It runs about 75-minutes, shorter than the finished feature, and presents the voice recordings and music. It’s made up of sketches, rough animations, drawings, storyboards and so on. I wondered why this wasn’t possibly presented as a picture-in-picture feature but I realized while watching it that it’s actually a slightly different cut of the film. What’s interesting and probably of most value to viewers is that it offers a number of alternate takes, deleted bits, different angles, and even alternate dialogue. The scenes involving the rabid dog chasing varying characters at the end was done from the dog’s point-of-view, but here it’s presented at a different angle. Also different are Petey’s song, which is actually a bit longer, the Whack-Bat explanation scene differs a bit, and the dozer scene, where the farmers dig up the foxes’ home, also plays out differently with alternate dialogue. Changed dialogue is also scattered about in other scenes, and some bits of dialogue from the finished film are also missing, like the short scene where Mrs. Fox asks Mr. Fox if he “still feels poor.” It mostly adheres to the finished film in terms of story structure but a few of the differences are a bit jarring, and it’s rather fascinating to see how the envisioning of the film changed from early planning to the finished product.
Criterion next includes a section called “The Making of Fantastic Mr. Fox” which contains a number of short featurettes. Recording the Voices is the first one. Running 8-minutes, and made up mostly of what appears to be Flip camera footage, it shows the actors recording their voices in various locations. As most know Anderson recorded some of the voices out in real environments in the hopes of adding authenticity to the picture. Not all of the actors did this (at least Dafoe and Streep recorded their voices in a studio) but Clooney, Wolodarsky, and Murray got right into recording in the live environments, even acting out the scenarios. So because of this you get footage of Clooney running through fields, ducking for cover, and just going around in circles as he recites his lines. The bit with Murray and Clooney growling at each other is also rather amusing, as is Clooney jamming toast into his mouth to recreate Mr. Fox eating. There’s also separate footage of Murray and Streep in a studio redoing a few lines and working with Anderson on deliveries. And, just to add in a bit of a creep factor, there’s footage of Dafoe getting into character while doing his voice work for the rat.
Also rather fascinating is Puppet Tests/Early Animation, which presents 4-minutes of footage testing out the various puppets and effects in the film. There’s footage covering the movement and facial expressions of the puppets in their skeleton form and finished form, as well as tests for tunneling sequences and scenes where there is running or other forms of action. There’s tests for the smoke that appears in the film (which is just cotton) and a few lighting tests, like Bean’s cigarette. It’s all rather fascinating as it gives a decent look at the development of some of the impressive techniques used in the film.
References for the Art Department runs under a couple of minutes and is just a collection of pictures of buildings, objects, and landscapes (mostly taken from Roald Dahl’s property,) along with products and landscapes that Anderson wanted to appear in the film in one way or another. This is then followed by a 10-minute feature called A Visit to the Studio.
This feature oddly opens with a news report about the discovery of a WWII bomb that had been discovered near the studio and the process in detonating/disposing of it. I wasn’t sure how this played into anything at first but it becomes clear later on (I won’t spoil it but it does make its way into the film.) The rest of the feature visits the workshop where the puppets are repaired and cleaned up, with footage of assembly. We also get samples of the varying scales of puppets and props used throughout, some of which are surprisingly large and others that are incredibly small but still loaded with astounding details. There’s a visit to the art department where the sets are created (the ones for tunneling are rather cool) and we even have footage of Anderson talking with animators explaining how he wants scenes to look and how they’re to be blocked. We see some tests, including the flooding sequence, and even get to see some of the animators at work, posing the puppets and getting their shots. It’s here where we get to see the advantage of digital photography as the animators can constantly move back and forth over what they have shot as they’re doing it to make sure everything looks right. Although it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, there’s obviously a staggering amount of patience involved in all of this. It’s probably the most fascinating segment and if this release disappoints me in any area it’s that there isn’t all that much on the animators and their process.
Time-Lapse Photography does add a bit more but only 2-minute’s worth. The first half of it involves a panning shot in the flint mine. This shot took 5-weeks to do and the footage shows the animators at work, posing and moving the puppets and slowly panning the camera across the rather large set. It’s sped up substantially (5 weeks rolled into about 1-minute) and you see the animators busying about while you see the puppets move at normal speed, giving you a good idea as to the lengthy process. This piece also includes footage of the final dancing scene in the supermarket and the sculpting of the wolf that appears briefly near the end.
A 5-minute feature on the film’s Music is next and a lot of it focuses on a boys’ choir that sings the “Boggis, Bunce, and Bean” song. There’s also footage around Jarvis Cocker putting together “Petey’s Song” and then footage of the score being recorded. The “Making of” section then closes with a 1-minute video gallery of Miniature Objects, which is a collection of photos of the various props used in the film, including (but not limited to) furniture, trucks, the bottles of cider, food, dynamite, paintings, and most presented in varying scales.
What would have made this edition especially fantastic would have been the inclusion of the original novel by Roald Dahl. I’m sure this would have been an expensive inclusion so I’m in no way surprised that it’s not here, but Criterion does include audio of Roald Dahl reading Fantastic Mr. Fox. I don’t remember the original story so I actually can’t say if it’s read in its entirety, but it sounds like it. This inclusion at least makes for a great way to compare the original source to the film, which expands heavily on the story. The feature runs 53-minutes. (Since this is a dual-format edition it would have been nice if they included the feature as a separate MP3 file on one of the DVDs.)
A cute set of features are the “Award Speeches” created to be played at a couple of award shows. The Acceptance Speech runs over a minute and was created for the acceptance of the Special Achievement Award from the National Board of Review, which presents a stop-motion weasel voiced by Anderson. The Potential Victory Speech was created for the Academy Awards in the case it won Best Animated Film (it, of course, didn’t.) Also running over a minute it presents Anderson again as a stop-motion weasel who invites everyone from the “cast” on stage, only to be hinted by the orchestra to wrap it up. There is then a 27-second Press Statement by Mr. Fox who becomes perplexed as to why his film was only nominated for Best Animated Feature with all the other “cartoons.” If you like Anderson’s humour then chances are you’ll get a chuckle out of these.
Set Photography by Ray Lewis is a small gallery presenting photos of the various models, puppets, sets, and landscapes used in the film, along with costumes, eyes, and the tunnels. There’s also an interesting picture presenting how they created the various point-of-view shots that appear in the film.
For those concerned that the extras from the original Fox release wouldn’t make it, fear no more! Criterion carries over the material from the original release under a section called Publicity Featurettes. Running about 40-minutes and divided into 6 subsections: Roald Dahl, Adaptation, Puppet Makers, The Cast, Designing the World, and Bill and Badger. I’m glad this made it over as the material was better than most of the fluff most studios will jam on their releases. It includes footage of Gipsy House (where Dahl lived) and his writing shed, and then also includes some more information on the process of adapting the story (including a somewhat creepy video put together of Anderson acting out a lot of the parts, which surprisingly was not included as a feature.) There’s also more footage of the puppets and the design of the film, including an interesting bit on lighting the cider cellar. The best segment may be the last, featuring Murray visiting the set and talking with the animators, allowing us to examine the animation process a little more. Again, much better than most studio featurettes and I’m happy Criterion carried it all over, meaning there is no reason to keep the old Fox Blu-ray.
And there’s still more! Criterion includes Anderson’s stop-motion Sony Robots Commercial, which was made for the Sony Xperia, and presents a look at what goes on in those phones—allegedly. It runs about a minute.
This is followed by an 11-minute feature called Discussion and Analysis. Silly me was actually thinking this might be a serious feature and it’s not entirely. It feature two children, Jake Ryan and Jeremy Logan (students of film) who talk about the film, calling it “awesome” and “hysterical” and pointing out things like the characters “act like ninjas” sometimes. They compare the film to the source and explain that they like the film more because it has “more stuff” in it. Amusingly they also get into the moral implications in having a thief as the film’s hero, among other things. It can be both funny and obnoxious and the feature will probably require a high tolerance for “cuteness” to enjoy it.
Criterion then includes the wonderful 61-minute BBC documentary Fantastic Mr. Dahl. Through interviews with surviving family members it offers a rather extensive portrayal of the author and the many ups and downs throughout his life. It covers his loves and marriages, and the tragedies that occurred throughout his life, the death of his daughter Olivia from measles being the most traumatic from the sounds of it. It looks at his work and the various influences, and how he wrote to appeal to children. It’s a rather thorough and engaging documentary, filled with quite a few surprises and doses of humour (like an archival interview with the author where he recalls his first sex-ed class.) A rather wonderful inclusion on Criterion’s part.
The disc then closes with a few small features: Witch’s Tree is a 2-minute video with Dahl showing the tree on his property that influenced Fantastic Mr. Fox, and then Criterion throws in a small gallery displaying Dahl’s Manuscripts. The latter is a small gallery but make your way to the end where we see a letter from the publisher about his submission of Fantastic Mr. Fox. The letter has a few suggestions for possible changes and Dahl followed this up with a great, witty rejection letter.
The booklet then contains a few wonderful things. Erica Wagner provides a nice analytical essay on the film and how it fits into Anderson’s filmography. We also get a reprinting of the “White Cape” comic that appears in the film along with a number of production photos and design drawings.
In all it’s a rather packed special edition, definitely an improvement over Fox’s release, but I was a little disappointed that there seemed to be only a little bit on the actual animation and I’m surprised that animators weren’t interviewed. Also, the lack of interviews with any of the cast is another disappointment as is the lack of any other critical material, like what Matt Zoller Seitz contributed to Criterion’s Blu-ray of The Darjeeling Limited. Still, what we do get is mostly engaging and informative, and I think fans will be thrilled with the material Criterion has still managed to throw on here. 9/10