Children, some of the most savvy moviegoers around, lately have been misunderstood by the major studios. Judging by box-office returns, they didn't want the constant emotional pain of "Where the Wild Things Are" or the apocalyptic nightmare of "9." Much like adults, children want to see the whole of life onscreen - dark and light, sorrow and humor, rage and tenderness.

They'll find all that in "Fantastic Mr. Fox," a stop-motion animated feature from director Wes Anderson ("The Royal Tenenbaums"). It opens todayFriday in Manhattan but is scheduled for wider release Nov. 25, so mark your calendars: This charming, inventive, slyly hilarious and sneakily profound movie is one of the year's best by any standard.

It retains the basics of Roald Dahl's short novel, in which the cocky chicken thief Mr. Fox (George Clooney, born for the role) steals from the villainous Farmer Bean (Michael Gambon) and endangers his whole family. But Anderson and his co-writer, Noah Baumbach ("The Squid and the Whale"), add new layers to the story, creating a full-fledged comedy-drama.

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This Fox also feels trapped by a wife (Meryl Streep), a young son (Jason Schwartzman) and a hefty mortgage (his real-estate agent is, of course, a weasel). Fox's struggle to tame his wild nature is poignant; it's not just his ruffled fur and dancing eyes that make this character feel so real.

With its clever visual jokes and sassy dialogue, Anderson's first foray into animation doesn't seem to be made entirely with children in mind. Maybe that's why it seems so perfect for them.