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Can the Oscar be chicken feed for that sly 'Fantastic Mr. Fox'?

January 31, 2010 |  1:31 pm

Throughout awards season, "Fantastic Mr. Fox" has been as sneaky as, well, a fox. Though many awards gurus believed Pixar's "Up" would soar invincibly above all rivals, "Fantastic Mr. Fox" won top prizes as the year's best animated film from prestigious groups including the New York Film Critics Circle and the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn.

The film, about a devious, chicken-stealing fox posed a curious threat in other contests. When the New York critics named George Clooney best actor, they not only cited his bravura turn in "Up in the Air," but also his voiceover work as the devilish vulpine lead in "Mr. Fox" too. And now, on the eve of Academy Award nominations, some notable Oscarologists believe that it's a serious threat in more than just the race for best animated feature.

Fantastic Mr Fox

But it's the animation contest — expanded to five contenders this year from the usual three — that's heating up, according to some sources such as the New York Times, which warns "a fox snuck into Pixar’s henhouse" during this derby season. Pixar has produced six CGI films since the academy created a separate category for animation in 2001, winning it four times: "Finding Nemo" (2003), "The Incredibles" (2004), "Ratatouille" (2007), "Wall-E" (2008). Its two losses: "Monsters Inc." got squashed by "Shrek" (2001); and, in a huge upset, "Happy Feet" raced past "Cars" (2006). Now can "Mr. Fox" upstage "Up"?

"Up" towered over "Mr. Fox" at the box office, but both films received sky-high critical praise. "Mr. Fox" scored an impressive 83 at Metacritic. Kenneth Turan of the L.A. Times said the film "provides a pleasantly cerebral experience, exhilarating and fizzy, that goes to your head like too much Champagne."

"Mr. Fox" is a fantastic departure for Wes Anderson, who directed and wrote such critically hailed live-action films as "The Royal Tenenbaums" (Oscar nomination, best original screenplay of 2001) and "Rushmore" (1998). "Usually, directors are either in animation or live action," Anderson conceded to Gold Derby, citing Tim Burton as one of the rare exceptions. "There were definitely moments when I was surprised myself that I was doing this."

Anderson's departure into stop-motion animation was tedious. Preparation took one year, and shooting took another. But when we asked Anderson if he'd make another attempt in the future, he replied, "Yes, I'd do it again. It was a nice change. The pace of it allows you a lot of time to polish it and refine it and add to it." However, in the immediate future, he added with a chuckle, "I want to do my next movie with humans."

Preferably, live humans. The biggest challenge of making "Mr. Fox" was adapting the small, beloved children's book by Roald Dahl, who died in 1990.

"The whole process of making the movie was about was trying to imagine what Roald Dahl might have done with this if he were here to make the script," Anderson said. "We had to make it a lot longer and add more characters. ... I'm a fan of his whole body of work, and I spent a lot of time at his house, in his archives, and we were trying to draw from the whole Roald Dahl world and try to expand it by looking to that. We used everything we could from the book, but we tried to be as faithful as we could to him."

Listen to our full chat by clicking on the right-pointing arrow below. It's a phone chat we had a few weeks ago that got held up while I fiddled with trying to fix volume problems. Alas, not very well, as you can hear, but it's still fun to listen in.

Photo: 20th Century Fox

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Note: An earlier draft of this article mistakenly stated the Roald Dahl died in 1980. He died in 1990.