(CNN) -- Love him or whatever, over the past few years, it seemed like "Rushmore" director Wes Anderson was an acquired taste going stale.
As "The Royal Tenenbaums" gave way to "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" and then "The Darjeeling Limited," even fans and admirers were beginning to wonder whether his highly idiosyncratic cinematic style -- the fussy, decorative design, that whimsically literary voice, deadpan ironic tone and so on -- could sustain itself for much longer.
Nobody could have predicted he'd go off on a tangent like this one: adapting a story by Roald Dahl and transforming it into a stop-motion animated children's film.
So has the leopard changed his spots at last?
Not even remotely. But it's remarkable what a fresh lick of paint can do. When you get right down to it, "Fantastic Mr. Fox" is a Wes Anderson movie like the rest. But still, this delightful confection feels like a rare treat, and it won't be surprising if it clicks with a wider audience than he's used to -- young and old alike.
George Clooney supplies the voice and something of the persona for the title character, a dapper, reckless red fox in a corduroy suit. He's a nocturnal marauder who thinks he knows all the angles but promises to go straight when his wife, Mrs. Fox (voiced by Meryl Streep), tells him she's pregnant.
If this is a trap, it's preferable to the predicament they find themselves in at the time, which seems to be imminent extinction at the hands of a local squab farmer.
Cut to 12 fox years later. Miraculously alive, and as good as his word, Mr. Fox is a frustrated newspaper columnist -- justifiably convinced that nobody reads him -- and an insufficiently proud father to the disappointingly strange and dweeby Ash (Jason Schwartzman). Ash dresses in a superhero cape in a forlorn attempt to live up to his father's legend.
His old man has much the same idea: pulling on a bandit's mask and roping in a mild-mannered opossum as an accomplice, he embarks on a daring crime spree that will engender catastrophic reprisals on his family, friends and neighbors.
Whatever Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach may have taken from Dahl, the perennial Wes Anderson themes are all here, and Mr. Fox assumes his place alongside the hapless thieves from "Bottle Rocket," Gene Hackman's fraudster in "Tenenbaums" and Bill Murray's egotistical Steve Zissou as another irresistible, incorrigible and tragically immature alpha male.
The lopsided rivalry between Ash and his over-achieving cousin Kristofferson (Eric Anderson) is equally familiar, and if we don't get the Kinks this time, the soundtrack still gives us the Rolling Stones' "Street Fighting Man."
OK, so Anderson repeats himself; male bravado is a rich subject, and it's not like he's making "Transformers 3" here. The writer-director returns to these relationships because they move and amuse him.
The switch to stop-motion has inspired his most visually lovely film. (In fact, maybe this famously fastidious perfectionist should stick with the format.) More than any of the year's 3-D spectaculars, it makes you want to reach in and touch the autumn leaves or stroke Mr. Fox's bristling fur.
But better than that, stop-motion seems to have freed up Anderson's comic imagination. "Fantastic Mr. Fox" is jam-packed with delicious non sequiturs and merrily absurd inventions, like the tube sock Ash pulls over his head in lieu of a professional bandit hat or the star-spangled button eyes that repeatedly signal the poor opossum's incomprehension.
Happy Thanksgiving -- and pass the poultry.