20th Century Fox released a fairly impressive Blu-ray of Fantastic Mr. Fox back in 2010. However, Criterion is renowned for producing wonderful looking, and sounding editions packed with special features. This release is no different; I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this release might show up on a few “Best Releases of the Year” lists.

Adapted from Roald Dahl’s book of the same name, Fantastic Mr. Fox is director Wes Anderson’s (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums) first foray into full length stop-motion animation. Adapted for the screen by Anderson and Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale), the first thing that struck me about this film was the look. One of the oldest animation styles available, stop-motion animation tends to make buildings and landscapes look rather picture booky; In the case of Fantastic Mr. Fox, the faces of animals look almost lifelike. Most amazingly, their fur seems so real. Its details like those that serve to draw you into the story from the first frame.

After learning that his wife (voiced by Meryl Streep) is pregnant, former athletic standout and expert chicken thief Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney) leaves behind his life of thievery for a job as a mild mannered newspaper columnist. Then, twelve “fox years” later, he is drawn back into his old life. The family moves from their small den to a large tree that overlooks three large neighboring farms. Their son Ash (voiced by Jason Schwartzman) is resolutely “different.” He has a hard enough time living in the shadow of his notorious father; so he’s less than thrilled to learn that his beloved cousin Kristofferson (the director’s brother Eric Anderson) will be staying with them for awhile.

Mr. Fox plots a raid on the farms with an opossum named Kylie (voiced by Wallace Wolodarsky). Unfortunately, the act has unexpectedly dangerous repercussions not only for them, but the entire animal kingdom. After raising the ire of the three biggest local farmers–Boggis, Bunce and Bean (the latter voiced by Michael Gambon), Mr. Fox, his family, and the other animals are forced underground. The farmers have every sniper they can find on the hunt for Mr. Fox; forcing him to use every animal instinct he has to avoid certain death. When one of the farmers kidnaps one of his loved ones, it looks like his days are numbered. In order to save them, he’ll have to come out of hiding and face a sad fate.

Anderson does a great job of making us care about the characters. The choice of voice actors is perfect. George Clooney seems born to play Mr. Fox, equal parts roguish and sweet, every word he says is somehow believable. Streep can make even a “suffering wife” voice-over role interesting; I only wish there had been more of her in it. Bill Murray has some memorable moments as the lawyer Badger, and Schwartzman is funny and awkward as Ash. Willem Dafoe and Owen Wilson have small but notable roles as a tough talking rat and Ash’s “Whack Bat” coach, respectively.

I mentioned the animation earlier, but there are a few additional things that make it superb. The palette is full of warm autumnal colors that seem to pop off the screen at every turn; Anderson added actual fur to the puppets to give them a more realistic look. And to those who worried that Anderson’s foray into stop-motion animation would mean a change in his filmmaking style—not a chance. The style and pace is pure Wes Anderson, including the soundtrack (which includes everything from “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” to “Street Fighting Man” by The Rolling Stones.)

While I will concede that Fantastic Mr. Fox is a bit slow to get going, and at times a bit too quirky, at the end of the day Anderson has succeed in crafting a film that should appeal to both children and adults. Fantastic Mr. Fox definitely earned a spot on my top ten list of the best films of 2009.

Presented in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, Criterion’s 1080p transfer is fantastic. The Blu-ray’s clarity serves to exemplify the unique appearance of the animation. There is significant depth throughout, and the texture is top-notch. The image is impressive throughout, showing off the earthy colors and commonly soft palette. Contrast exhibits rich black levels. The grain isn’t too heavy, but makes for a nice filmic appearance.

The 5.1 audio track is rather vigorous, handling all dialogue, effects, and ambient sounds very well. Everything is appropriately separated and crisp throughout. Since this is a Wes Anderson film there’s a vast range of musical pieces from Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” to Bobby Fuller Four’s “Let Her Dance,” and every song sounds full.

English SDH subtitles are included.

The following extras are included:

  • Audio Commentary with Director Wes Anderson: Insightful as always, Anderson discusses his favorite scene, the various homage’s in the film, the shooting process, and more.
  • Introduction (HD, 1:12) Petey (Jarvis Cocker) gives an overview of the film.
  • Storyboard Animatic for the Entire Film (HD, 1:15:09) Divided into the sections below.
    • Recording the Voices: Beginning with a session in October of 2007, we witness George Clooney and others on a farm beginning the process.
    • Puppet Tests/Early Animation: Several views of the main characters in crude stop-motion form.
    • References for the Art Department: A look at some of the props and furniture used in the film.
    • A Visit to the Studio: We get a look at the studio where the puppets/figures are painted, primed, and prepared for filming.
    • Time-Lapse Photography: A look at a scene that took five weeks to complete.
    • Music: Footage of the Children’s Choir of the London Oratory School performing music from the film.
    • Miniature Objects: Photographed by Ray Lewis, these are some of the tine objects used in the film, from motorcycles to musical instruments.
  • Roald Dahl Reads Fantastic Mr. Fox (53:20) In an audio recording, the famed author reads the book on which this film is based.
  • Fantastic Mr. Dahl (HD, 101:26) In this 2005 documentary, Roald Dahl’s family friends, and colleagues discuss his life and work. If you’re a fan of Dahl’s work, this piece is well worth seeing.
  • Award Speeches
    • Acceptance Speech (HD, 1:17) Done in stop-motion animation, this is an acceptance speech at the National Board of Review.
    • Potential Victory Speech (HD, 1:22) Had the film won the Oscar for Best animated film, this is the speech we would have seen.
    • Press Statement: (HD, :27) In stop-motion animation  Mr. Fox (George Clooney) reacts to the Oscar nomination for Best Animated Film.
  • Publicity Featurettes: Divided into the six sections below.
    • The Look of Fantastic Mr. Fox (HD, 8:12) An explanation of how the film makers achieved the overall aesthetic of the film.
    • From Script to Screen (HD, 7:00) A look at how a one act story was developed into a full-length screenplay.
    • The Puppet Makers (HD, 8:19) Production designer Nelson Lowry and chief puppet creator Andy Gent take us into the workshop where all of the miniatures were made.
    • Still Life (Puppet Animation) (HD, 7:23) Witness animators at work.
    • Cast (HD, 6:32) Along with some behind-the-scenes footage, Jason Schwartzman and Bill Murray share a few thoughts about their characters.
    • Bill and His Badger (HD, 7:37) Join Bill Murray on a tour of the miniature sets.
  • Discussion and Analysis (HD, 11:27) Critics Jake Ryan and Jeremy Logan share their thoughts on the film.
  • Witches Tree (HD, 1:45) Roald Dahl gives us the history of the tree that served as his inspiration for Fantastic Mr. Fox.
  • Set Photography by Ray Lewis: Using your remote, peruse through a gallery of sets, props, and puppets.
  • Gallery of Roald Dahl’s Original Manuscripts: A selection of pages from the first manuscript (circa 1968) of Fantastic Mr. Fox and two letters between Dahl and his editor, Fabio Coen. Like the photo gallery, you can navigate the pages using your remote.
  • Sony Robots Commercial (HD, 1:01) Stop-motion commercial for Sony Xperia products, directed by Anderson.
  • Booklet: The illustrated booklet includes a new essay by Erica Wagner; a 2002 article on Roald Dahl’s Gipsy House by Wes Anderson; White Cape, a comic book used as a prop in the film, and drawings, paintings, etc.
  • 2 DVDs containing the film and all of the extras.