Why has it taken movie studios so long to learn the Tim Burton lesson about children's movies? With "Pee-wee's Big Adventure," "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," he definitively proved that kiddie classics belong in the hands of hipster pop surrealists.

They're in contact with the untrammeled animal impulses of youth and they see the world with kaleidoscope eyes, yet they can put a sophisticated spin on fairy tales. (See also the Neil Gaiman/Henry Selick collaboration "Coraline" and Spike Jonze's "Where the Wild Things Are.")

The latest proof of this axiom is Wes Anderson's madcap foray into stop-motion animation, "Fantastic Mr. Fox." The film earns its title's superlative and a hundred more.

Anderson's outlandishly droll adaptation of Roald Dahl's classic enables him to indulge his imagination beyond the boundaries of live-action film. He approaches this little epic of puppet theater with fastidious attention to visual detail. (If he hadn't turned to film, Anderson could have been a breakout fashion designer or interior decorator.)

Anderson's great theme is tumultuous families, and the Fox clan deliciously embodies his fixations. With co-writer Noah Baumbach ("The Squid and the Whale"), another indie connoisseur of family gamesmanship, he bridges the worlds of children and adults in hilarious fashion. It's a feel-good romp for well-heeled neurotics.

Mr. Fox is a sharp-dressing family man who is less grounded than he thinks he is. He has put aside the chicken-stealing antics of his youth, married the lovely Felicity, and sired young Ash.

He writes the society column for the local newspaper, frets about moving into a swankier part of the forest, and blithely ignores his son, a lump of sullen introversion. He's entering a midlife crisis.

"I'm seven in non-fox years," he frets, "my father was dead at seven and a half." He feels the need to pull "one last job," raiding the coops of nasty farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean. Felicity, who made him promise years earlier to quit such risky behavior, won't have it, but the pull of his carnivorous nature can't be denied. Will he honor his promises and emotional commitments or go rogue?

With George Clooney's raspy whiskey baritone voicing Mr. Fox, it's no surprise that the story melds "Ocean's Eleven" heist action with the redemption of an aging reprobate. Mr. Fox is a con artist even with his family, though the charge would surely wound him. He's just being himself, the classic narcissist's get-out-of-jail-free card. When his dad takes an instant shine to visiting cousin Kristofferson, a natural athlete and yoga sage, Ash seethes with comic jealousy; his frozen yet fidgety annoyance is priceless.

Anderson gets plenty of laughs out of his characters' well-mannered repression. When Mr. Fox eats, he becomes his true self, tearing into his food like a chainsaw. An instant later he's the image of decorum.

The eccentric characters are a delight, and the giggles come flying at you like leaves in a tornado. Anderson paces the film like a Looney Tunes frolic on overdrive, overstuffed with ingenious visual effects. The humor plays with our expectations and builds suspense. There are great surface laughs (electrified skeletons glowing like light-bulb filaments) and flashes of self-reflexive humor. Like all good kiddie characters, Mr. Fox has a trademark shtick, a fancy whistle of excitement. Here, the other characters are aware of it, and sort of jealous.

The whiskery mannequins, with their herky-jerky movements, have a beguiling organic quality that is a welcome relief from the cold computer graphics of Disney's "A Christmas Carol." The dreamlike landscapes resemble opulent junior high school dioramas. "Mr. Fox" is a nonstop sight gag, a handmade labor of love in an age of mass-produced, uninspired entertainment.

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186