(PD Nelson Lowry, bbc.co.uk)
Wes Anderson’s feature-length animation Fantastic Mr Fox, which opens the London Film Festival, cunningly recreates the real world of the story’s author, Roald Dahl.
In a cavernous warehouse studio in east London, a selection of sets and puppets from Anderson’s stop-motion movie sit dwarfed by their surroundings.
Most are no wider than a couple of real foxes – nose-to-tail.
Among the most impressive sets are Mr Fox’s cosy study (pictured above), the Nag’s Head pub, and an underground hideaway overflowing with stolen bottles of cider and joints of ham.
“This is a great set because it shows the level of detail to the props that the team created,” says the film’s producer Allison Abate. “Every prosciutto looks delicious!”
Wes Anderson, director of The Royal Tenenbaums and The Darjeeling Limited, stayed at Roald Dahl’s house in Great Missenden, in Buckinghamshire, while writing the screenplay.
The film tells the story of the charismatic Mr Fox who returns to his old ways as a chicken thief, pitting him against the farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean.
Old school animation
With Anderson at the helm, it’s no surprise that the film features his trademark dysfunctional family unit and numerous actors from his pool of regulars.
George Clooney and Meryl Streep provide the voices of Mr and Mrs Fox, and the cast includes by Bill Murray as Badger, Jason Schwartzman as Ash, Owen Wilson as Coach Skip and Willem Dafoe as Rat.
Even former Pulp singer Jarvis Cocker pops up as a human character called Petey.
One remarkable aspect of the film, in these days of CGI, is that it has an almost home-made feel to it. As animation goes, this is old school. Each character was posed 12 different times for every second of film.
“Wes has always been a fan of stop motion,” Abate says. “It has a tactile texture and a nostalgic kind of quality that really lends itself to this story.”
Roald Dahl’s daughter Lucy welcomed the production team to the family home before the filming began.
“Wes and Lucy hit it off right away. He wrote some of the script while he was visiting Great Missenden. It is a very inspiring place, you feel Roald Dahl everywhere you look.”
Abate says that some of the new elements that Anderson introduces into the movie seem like a natural extension of Dahl’s story.
“The possum sidekick Kylie is such a great character – it’s great for Mr Fox to have that sounding board and that flipside of his personality.”
She adds: “It’s a characteristic of Wes’s movies to have such a sidekick. It seemed like a natural addition.”
One of the other changes is that Anderson has given personalities to the fox children.
“Mr Fox has son Ash who is awkward and clumsy, and they are visited by his nephew Kristofferson who is effortlessly handsome and athletic,” says Abate.
“I’m sure Roald Dahl would have got a kick out how that has been developed.”
One particular set, Mr Fox’s study (pictured above and right), is based closely on Roald Dahl’s own writing shed in the garden of his house in Great Missenden.
It was here that Dahl, who died in 1990, wrote many of his most famous stories such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, and Matilda.
“The biggest challenge was that we had to create such an elaborate large-scale world all from scratch,” says Nelson Lowry, who worked on the film at Three Mills Studios for more than two years as its production designer.
“Wes was so interested in the details, everything was purposeful, and every piece of paper or book on a shelf had writing or a title that was relevant.”
He adds: “Whether you see those details when you are watching the film I don’t think is important. It imbues the film with a sense of place and it’s a lovely way to make a film.”
“There are a lot of nice little touches,” says Lowry. “We rebuilt the chair that Roald Dahl sat in – though this one is small enough for a kitten. Mr Fox has a board across the arms of the chair, which is exactly what Roald Dahl did when he wrote.”
And because of the nature of stop-frame animation the props had to be tough. Even pieces of paper stuck to a wall were backed with aluminium foil.
“The sets are in great shape and quite beautiful to look at,” says Lowry. “Luckily some will go into the Roald Dahl Museum in Great Missenden, which I’m so happy about.
“It’s great some of them will be seen for a long time to come.”
– Tim Masters