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Fantastic Mr. Fox (PG)

Mr. Fox and friends in the amusing "Fantastic Mr. Fox." (Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures/MCT)
Mr. Fox and friends in the amusing "Fantastic Mr. Fox." (Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures/MCT)

The most common charge leveled at filmmaker Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums, Rushmore, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou) is that his movies are too precious. His new film, an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s children’s book Fantastic Mr. Fox, continues the tradition: The picture is nothing but precious.

Some of Anderson’s previous pictures have felt like live-action movies that really wanted to be cartoons, and in Fantastic Mr. Fox, the director finally gives in to the instinct. Beautifully animated in old-school, labor-intensive stop-motion — in which figurines are moved and photographed one frame at a time — Fantastic Mr. Fox looks like no other recent cartoon. Coraline, released earlier this year, used the same technique but somehow looked slicker and more polished.

Mr. Fox’s old-fashioned, hand-crafted animation is one of its main attractions. Another is Anderson’s whimsical, dry humor, a natural for this tale of a crafty, dapper fox (voiced by George Clooney) who must protect his wife (Meryl Streep) and son (Jason Schwartzman) from three farmers — “one fat, one short, one lean” — out to get rid of the four-legged poachers for good.

Fantastic Mr. Fox never runs out of wonderful things to look at, from Mr. Fox’s stylish wardrobe (notice the wheat stalks he sports in the breast pocket of his corduroy suit) to the Xs and swirls that appear on the marble eyes of the characters when they are drunk or unconscious (or worse). Although the stop-motion figures look nothing like the actors who voice them, Clooney’s suaveness and Streep’s motherly sense of reason are a perfect fit for Mr. and Mrs. Fox, and Bill Murray scores highly as the family’s lawyer, a badger.

The visuals are so entrancing, and the animation such a treat, that Fantastic Mr. Fox is half over before you realize the story isn’t nearly so captivating as the film’s look and atmosphere. Plot has never been Anderson’s strong suit, and, despite plentiful incidents that send the Fox family burrowing deeply underground to survive, the movie has a dawdling pace that might not completely satisfy younger viewers weaned on Pixar and Ice Age.

I’m not sure Anderson had children exclusively in mind when he made Fantastic Mr. Fox, though. “Who am I? Why a fox? And can a fox ever be happy without a chicken in its teeth?” Mr. Fox asks in a moment of domesticated anxiety. The film’s premise may be child-like, but its themes — family, self-identity and existential angst — are all engagingly adult.

Voices: George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Wally Wolodarsky, Michael Gambon, Willem Dafoe, Owen Wilson.

Director: Wes Anderson.

Screenwriters: Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach. Based on the book by Roald Dahl.

Producers: Allison Abbate, Scott Rudin, Wes Anderson.

A 20th Century Fox release. Running time: 88 minutes. No offensive material.