Film & TV

What's Wrong With Wes Anderson?

Page 4 of 5

Anderson admits he was a little taken aback by the failure of The Life Aquatic — his biggest and most beautiful film, brimming with mirth, mischief and longing. It's also the most metaphysical of Anderson films, ending on a scene in which the mysteries of nature — symbolized by the heretofore mythological jaguar shark — swallow whole the existential angst and self-absorption of team Zissou, replacing them with a transcendent awe.

"When it came out, it seemed like it just sank and I didn't really know what to make of it because I kind of thought, Well, this is like a seagoing adventure, this ought to have an audience," he says. "But, stepping back, it's kind of a big, very odd ... not deliberately odd ... I don't know what movie to say it is like. It's just sort of its own thing. Maybe if it came out 20 years earlier in a different environment, it would have been fine ... in a time when MASH is a huge hit, where a movie can be released on one screen and play for three weeks and then it can move to another place and play for a year and people can process it in a different way."

Anderson also concedes that some of the recent criticism has gotten into his head.

"I think certain criticisms that I've heard about myself repeatedly start to linger," he says, looking out the window, almost embarrassed for exposing himself in this way. "The things that I think about are whether or not I'm telling the same kind of family stories and whether these movies are so meticulously art-directed or organized that people can't get into the story. I feel like with Darjeeling Limited, I got a lot of people saying I was repeating certain things. But for me, I was doing a movie in India about these three brothers and those things are different. I mean, it's in India. It's a completely different movie.

"In the end, I just do whatever I do, probably," he says.

In some ways, Fantastic Mr. Fox can be seen as a referendum on what Anderson does. As with Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are, goodwill toward the source material isn't in question. And it's unlikely that studios will continue to fork over Life Aquatic— or Fox-size budgets to Anderson without some evidence he can pay them off.

To his credit, Anderson hasn't let the pressure of dealing with either a sacred text or his recent track record cow him: Fox is a Wes Anderson movie through and through, despite the curious absence of the director's name from distributor 20th Century Fox's early marketing campaign. In fact, it might be the most Anderson movie to date, seeing as he designed every aspect of it from scratch, including the vulpine principals and their coalition of furry friends. To say the movie is meticulously art-directed is an understatement. In many ways, it is art direction.

"I liked the idea of just doing a movie where we could build the whole movie, and working in miniatures is kind of interesting because, in a live-action movie, you're not designing somebody's face and you're rarely designing a tree, you know?" Anderson says. "That was something that appealed to me. Building landscapes and things like that."

To get the film's look and feel right, Anderson visited Dahl's widow, Felicity, at the late author's estate in Buckinghamshire, England.

"When I was there, it was really muddy. It was the fall, or maybe the winter, and it was not like a green, English wonderland at that time. And I started taking pictures around his house and said, 'Let's build this little bit of landscape,' and had this thing of keeping it really fall type of colors," he recalls. "So everything was [about] taking pictures of landscapes or objects, tons of things from Dahl's house, and making them in miniature."

Visually, the film is a masterwork, and all the justification anyone should need for Anderson's insistence on applying old-fashioned techniques to what has become filmmaking's most progressive idiom — animation. In Fox, the textured, burnished, autumnal hues evoke an endless pumpkin patch in a New England October. Fur bristles, wind blows across meadows, sunlight radiates — the whole thing feels as tactile and pregnant as a field ready for harvest.

To write the screenplay, Anderson moved into Dahl's house for two weeks with his friend and sometimes collaborator Noah Baumbach, the writer and director of Kicking and Screaming and The Squid and the Whale. But whom, I ask Anderson, did they have in mind for the film's audience when crafting the script?

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Joe Donnelly
Contact: Joe Donnelly