By Peter Knegt | Indiewire October 15, 2009 at 3:45AM
Last night in London, Leicester Square was converted into a scene comparable to the Academy Awards. With zigzaging red carpets leading into not one, but two mammoth cinemas on different sides of the square (the two largest cinemas in the city), Wes Anderson's "Fantastic Mr. Fox" kicked of the The Times-BFI 53rd London Film Festival with a considerable frenzy. Thousands of onlookers stood against barriers blocking off the square, screaming at the eccentric variety of celebrities making their way into the premiere. From Roald Dahl's granddaughter (and British tabloid fixture) Sophie Dahl to "Mr. Fox"-affiliates Wes Anderson, George Clooney, Jason Schwartzman and Bill Murray, to, for whatever reason, Cindy Crawford, it was quite the sight.
Once the mania died down and the premiere's black-tied attendees found their seats, Amanda Nevill, director of the British Film Institute, took the stage of the massive Odeon Leicester Square cinema.
"It's long been our ambition to take the festival further," she said. "We're raising our profile at home and abroad. People are starting to talk about the festival more than ever before... And the real reason we are so excited about this higher profile festival, is because it bangs the drum of the BFI's mission. Which is to celebrate film as a great art form."
The festival's raised profile is due in sizable part to landing "Mr. Fox"'s world premiere as their opening night film (coming after last year's similarly notable opener "Frost/Nixon"). The film - adapted from Roald Dahl's beloved 1970 children's book and directed in stop-motion animation by Wes Anderson - seemed a more likely fit for more typical fall film launchers like Toronto or Venice (where Anderson's "Darjeeling Limited" premiered two years ago). But London seems to have proved a formidable alternative. Instead of getting lost in the sea of those aforementioned fests, "Mr. Fox" had a sole spotlight shining brightly upon it, and not without good reason. Warmly received by both critics and an applause-heavy London audience, "Mr. Fox" was looking fantastic, indeed.
The film follows Mr. Fox (Clooney), Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep), and their son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman), as they join forces with neighboring families of Badgers, Rabbits and Weasals to fend off three angry farmers. Visually stunning and pleasantly charming, the film is likely to delight even Anderson's naysayers.
Before the screening began, Anderson was introduced to the stage, and explained his joy in having the film premiere in London.
"I love this book," he said. "As a child, it was the first book I ever owned, and obviously my introduction to the work of Roald Dahl, who became one of my heroes. We wrote the script, in part, at his house. And we shot the film at Three Mills Studios in East London... So for me, it's a British film, and it's a great pleasure for me to have it premiering at the London Film Festival. Having said that, I'd like to introduce some of my colleagues who helped us to make the film, and they are almost, every last one of them... American."
The majority of the film's voice cast then took the stage, with the exception of Meryl Streep, who was sick with the flu. "Damn you, Meryl Streep," Bill Murray yelled from the audience as Anderson relayed the news.
Murray's sense of humor was felt throughout the media events that preceded the premiere as well. At the film's press conference earlier that day, Murray stole the show from the generally show-steal proof George Clooney (Greg Ellwood has a hilarious rundown of the Clooney vs. Murray joke-off over at Hitfix).
At one point, a reporter asked Wes Anderson whether he had been inspired by communist-era stop motion films from the then Czechoslovakia.
"That's the kind of question we've been hoping for," Murray deadpanned after the reporter finished. "That's why we flew over here. Go get 'em Wes."
Anderson responded to the question after Murray-induced laughter finally died down. "That kind of Eastern European animation was an inspiration to me," he said. "I hadn't thought of the political things, but I do think the movie, and Dahl, is a bit anarchic... The movie is a bit of a Robin Hood story, so it's also a bit communist I think."
"Or English," Murray interjected.
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Then Murray even managed a loving jab at Roald Dahl's widow. After the panel was asked whether they shared Dahl's tendency to get moody and depressive in the weeks leading up to a project's release (as his widow, Felicity had noted). Murray answered by relating his own experiences with Mrs. Dahl.
"I was just with Felicity Dahl all day and she made me feel that way too," Murray said. "She brings out the real fear in you... He's dead now so he's safe. She can't do him any damage now. Whatever happened in their household should stay there."
After another uproar of laughter died down, Murray saved himself.
"She's quite a person," he said. "They had quite a life together and she's very devoted to him very much even now. I'm sure that in that moment it must have been very forceful for to realize there is nothing she can do for him. It's an anxiety no person can help you with. It's your own question about your own self worth. But she's a wonderful, wonderful woman and if I were going to remarry I'd take a chance on her."
All of the actors joked that it seemed ridiculous that they were even up there considering how little work they actually did on the project.
"In fairness, we worked for a few days out on a farm together and ran around playing in barns," Clooney said when asked if he would consider doing voice work again. "And Wes worked for a year and half or two years on this project. So in some ways, us even being up here is sort of silly. This is Wes's job... So I'd imagine this question should really be for him."
One question that did head Anderson's way subtly related to last week's controversy in that The Los Angeles Times reported various animators on "Mr. Fox" felt Anderson was absent for much of the film's production, "emailing-in" his direction.
"Animating is a very slow, painstaking process," Anderson said to a reporter who asked how he got along with his animators. "The animators become the actors at that point. At the most, during this movie, we had 30 units going on at once. So we kind of created this system. I was not in London during the whole shoot. I was sometimes in other places. It's very consuming, so you have to work on it all the time while you're shooting. And we set up a computer system where I could look through 30 different cameras at once and see what's on each set and work with all the different people."
Anderson insisted that he loved making the film. "I feel like stop-motion is part of my arsenal for things to use with movies now," he said. "I really enjoyed it."
Whether or not that's true, it's merely history now that the folks at the London Film Festival have approved "Mr. Fox" for its Stateside debut next month. The film premieres as the opening film of AFI FEST and then hits theaters across the country on Thanksgiving. The London Film Film Festival, meanwhile, continues through October 29th. indieWIRE will continue to report from the scene.