Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!
My first Wes Anderson movie was The Royal Tenenbaums – and I wasn’t a big fan of it. To some extent that may be because I wasn’t yet used to Anderson’s particular cinematic idiom, but at least as much as that I think it’s that Anderson himself was still looking for that idiom. There’s a lot in the film that looks instantly familiar, but my main problem was the way it tried to blend the arch stylistics and Andersonian characters we’ve become familiar with on the one side and poignant drama on the other. There’s one scene in particular, a suicide attempt late in the film, that felt to me like Anderson was flipping a switch: one moment the film’s characters were cartoons, the next we were supposed to take them seriously as characters with depth and genuine suffering. I sat there seeing what Anderson was aiming at, and the scene is effective in itself – but I wasn’t buying it.
Since there was a lot about The Royal Tenenbaums that I found intriguing, I went to see The Life Aquatic when it came out, but even more than The Royal Tenenbaums it didn’t work for me. Its individual scenes often did, but they didn’t form a coherent whole, especially in terms of the emotions that Anderson was trying to evoke. The characters were too cartoony to feel human when the film wanted us to relate.
Which makes it funny that the first time I was able to relate to Anderson’s characters was when they were animated foxes, badgers and assorted other critters.
I didn’t see Fantastic Mr Fox at the cinema; instead I caught it on one of those tiny economy-class screens on an intercontinental flight. Arguably not the best way to see a work by a visual stylist who loves his detailed miniatures – but in spite of the less than ideal circumstances, I was transfixed. I loved the film’s look and textures, its verbal humour and its characters – and ironically, by having the latter be antropomorphic animals, Anderson’s stylistic idiosyncracies didn’t make them come across as less human, though this allowed him to tweak his formula and present us with characters that were stylised and still felt real. I found his fox and friends (no, not that one!) engaging and relatable in ways that the Tenenbaums or the crew of the Belafonte never really were for me.
Perhaps Fantastic Mr Fox allowed Anderson to calibrate his formula or perhaps it allowed me to understand what the writer-director was doing. The films that followed, Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel, were live-action films, but for me they retained the balance between arch cartoon and engaging characters that I’d found missing in Anderson’s earlier movies. The director’s embraced his artifice, and as a result the films are more cohesive.
I’m more ambivalent about his latest, Isle of Dogs; while that one offered many pleasures, for me they were predominantly aesthetic in nature. Nevertheless, Fantastic Mr Fox still holds a special place in my cineast heart, for providing a gateway to the worlds of Wes Anderson.
And, obviously, for “You wrote a bad song, Petey!”
The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.