The Grown-Up Fables of Wes Anderson
By Andrew Welch
May 24, 2012
This Friday, writer-director Wes Anderson’s seventh feature, Moonrise Kingdom, comes to theaters in limited release. It tells the story of Sam and Suzy, two young teens in love who run away from home to live together in the woods. Like Anderson’s other films, it’s playful and self-aware but never afraid to touch on serious emotions like forgiveness and reconciliation. But as with Anderson's other films, what you also see are children behaving like adults and adults behaving like children. It raises questions like, How do I grow up? What does it really mean to be an adult?
Undergirding every Anderson film is a gentle, compassionate look at characters navigating that difficult path from childhood and childishness to adulthood and true maturity. Here's an overview of Anderson's filmography and how the films build upon each other to communicate similar truths.
Anderson’s first film, Bottle Rocket, anticipates this focus on maturity with its story of three friends—played by Luke Wilson, Owen Wilson and Robert Musgrave—who naively aspire to a life of crime. But they’re only big fish in their own minds. The more their old dreams conflict with newer ones, the more they’re forced to put away childish behavior and learn how to live as adults, suggesting—as Anderson’s subsequent films would, too—that it’s not age that brings maturity but experience and one’s ability to own up to mistakes.
If Bottle Rocket was about three adults leaving childhood, Rushmore gave us a boy too eager to grow up. Jason Schwartzman plays Max Fischer, an ambitious if not very
studious pupil at an exclusive prep school. When he falls in love with the school’s new kindergarten teacher (Olivia Williams), he finds himself in competition with local businessman Herman Blume (Bill Murray) for her affections. The sharp age difference between Max and Herman and the escalating nature of their pranks on each other underscores the maturity-through-experience idea suggested by Bottle Rocket. As each succumbs to immaturity, their challenge is to outgrow their childish tendencies and learn responsibility.
The Royal Tenenbaums
In The Royal Tenenbaums, Anderson combines thematic elements from Bottle Rocket and Rushmore to tell the story of the dysfunctional Tenenbaum family. Here, almost the entire cast—from the estranged father, Royal (Gene Hackman) to his three grown children (played by Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow and Luke Wilson)—is trapped in some form of adolescence, all within a storybook version of New York that feels frozen in time. Added to the mix is a strong sense of melancholy. These characters aren’t trapped by choice or mere selfish ambition but by old wounds. To reference a different Anderson (in this case, director Paul Thomas Anderson), these characters may be through with the past, but the past isn’t through with them. Redemption and forgiveness are essential to these characters moving forward, hinting at Wes Anderson’s concern for emotional and spiritual maturity.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
For his follow-up to The Royal Tenenbaums, Anderson gave us a character very similar to Royal. Steve Zissou (Bill Murray), the once-famous-now-fading oceanographer and filmmaker at the heart of The Life Aquatic, is just as brash, self-seeking and caddish. But his search for the elusive Jaguar shark and the arrival of a young man (Owen Wilson) who may or may not be his son eventually lead him to a place where so many other of Anderson's characters have ended up: a place of humility, forgiveness and maturity.
The Darjeeling Limited
With The Darjeeling Limited, Anderson took a break from childish father figures to examine the strained relations between three brothers, played by Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman. Set in India, the plot revolves around a drawn-out search for their mother, who has gone into hiding in a convent near the Himalayas. Along the way, they attempt to reconnect via side trips to Hindu shrines and temples, but it's not until they come to face to face with tragedy that true healing begins. It's in The Darjeeling Limited, more than anywhere else in his filmography, that Anderson reveals how keenly he understands the need for a transformative spiritual experience, even if religious certainty is just out of reach—something Anderson brings to life perfectly by connecting Angelica Huston's elusive mother figure to Christianity and the brothers' spiritual journey.
Fantastic Mr. Fox
Anderson returned to eccentric fathers in his adaptation of Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mr. Fox, though he's just as interested in the story's child characters. Throughout the movie, he shifts perspective from Mr. Fox (George Clooney) to his son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman), comparing one's inner journey to the other. As Mr. Fox faces the consequences of his chicken-stealing lifestyle, Ash learns to accept his differences and those of others. Taken together, their different journeys force them to admit they are more alike than they ever thought before.
Very few contemporary American filmmakers have put the kind of personal stamp on their work that Wes Anderson has. Whether you're talking about the way his movies look, his choice of actors, the music he uses or his themes, Anderson's movies are almost a genre unto themselves. For fans of the writer-director, this is all part of the fun; for his detractors, it's what makes his works so frustrating. But regardless of where you fall on the love-him-or-hate-him spectrum, Anderson's formal and thematic consistency is what makes him a genuine auteur. Instead of following the "one for them, one for me" model of filmmaking, every one of Anderson's films are marked by a refreshing sense of forgiveness, optimism and, above all, a longing for spiritual and emotional maturity—no matter what age its characters or viewers happen to be.
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