Your guide to understanding Wes Anderson movies.
After an interminable four-year wait, the new Wes Anderson movie is here at last: Isle of Dogs, Anderson’s ninth film and second stop-motion animated effort, releases March 23.
It’s been 22 years since Anderson’s feature debut Bottle Rocket, and in the years since, he’s become an indie film institution. With an aesthetic that even the most untrained viewer of cinema can spot 100 miles away, Anderson has developed one of the most unique voices in cinema history.
For those unfamiliar with this maverick’s world, here are five Wes Anderson movies that should be viewed and savored before you sail to the Isle of Dogs.
1. Rushmore (1998)
Anderson’s second film, and first to gain real critical and box-office attention, is the story of absurdly overachieving and universally loathed teenager Max Fischer (played by Jason Schwartzman in his first major role) and his unrequited love for teacher Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams) at his elite private high school, Rushmore Academy.
Rushmore is most notable for launching Bill Murray — who would be nominated for his first Oscar in his role of sad Mr. Blume, who also falls for Ms. Cross — into a new, successful era of middle-aged character roles. For Murray, who has appeared in every Anderson film since, the film was a triumph. Max’s teen obsession with Ms. Cross is, at times, deeply unsettling 20 years later, but Anderson’s message about the absurdity of the male gaze is loud and clear. It was the young filmmaker’s first taste of real success.
2. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
Anderson would build on that success with The Royal Tenenbaums, which would establish many of the tropes with which he would become so well-known, such as the deadpan narrator (Alec Baldwin here), the storybook-esque presentation, meticulously detailed set design, obsessively symmetrical compositions and use of dynamic color schemes to represent characters and emotions.
The Tenenbaums are a uniquely dysfunctional family. Led by patriarch and gadabout Royal and his writer wife Ethelene, the Tenenbaum children — Ben Stiller’s Chas, Gwyneth Paltrow’s Margot (adopted) and Luke Wilson’s Richie — reach stratospheric heights as genius children to be glorified in their mother’s book, Family of Geniuses, only to sink into “two decades of betrayal, failure and disaster,” as Baldwin drolly delivers.
The film deals with the return of the family’s patriarch, Royal, portrayed by Gene Hackman in his last great role. Now broke, Royal plays the con that he’s going to die from stomach cancer in six weeks to force his family to let him spend time with them. The inherent whimsy is tempered by some real darkness, not the least of which is a suicide attempt and the demise of a beloved family pet. The film cemented Anderson as a talent with whom to be reckoned, and established forever his eccentric stylization that inevitably brought detractors as well as a great many admirers his way.
3. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
This masterful adaptation of Roald Dahl’s book about reformed chicken-stealer and newspaperman Mr. Fox is one of the most visionary animated films of the past decade. George Clooney is perhaps at his most Clooney-esque as the voice of Mr. Fox, whose efforts to steal from evil food producers Boggis, Bunce and Bean lead him and his whole community of fuzzy animals into hot water (hot apple cider, actually).
Meryl Streep and the usual Anderson actors like Bill Murray and Owen Wilson join him for what is perhaps the most perfect reflection of Wes Anderson’s own particular vision of production design, composition and deadpan acting. After all, with animation, there are none of the usual creative impediments such as bad weather or actors not bringing in the right look or performance. Looking at Fantastic Mr. Fox, given Anderson’s attention to detail, one wonders how on earth he could ever go back to live action films after having this endless canvas with which to work.
4. Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
He did, however, return to live action with his next film, his first period piece and one of his biggest hits. A luminous, joyful, sad and altogether dynamic and unique look at childhood on a fictional New England island in 1965 is, thus far, Anderson’s finest achievement. It is the story of 12-year-olds Sam Shakusky, an orphan and Khaki Scout, and Suzy Bishop, an isolated adolescent dreamer, who decide to run away together to a beach on a remote part of the island and the panic it incites from the hapless adults everywhere. Anderson, who used some of Vince Guaraldi’s music from A Charlie Brown Christmas in Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, here creates a world that seems at times his own unique interpretation of Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts. Here, the adults don’t make the trombone noises heard in the classic animated cartoons, but they might as well.
Anderson adds to his ensemble with one of the most memorable casts of child actors in recent memory, led by Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward as Sam and Suzy, who perfectly capture Anderson’s aesthetic, along with all the young Khaki Scouts with wonderful character names like Lazy-Eye, Panagle and Gadge. The adults are just as glorious, making up one of the best casts in recent memory, including Bruce Willis as the island’s lone police officer, Edward Norton as the hapless Khaki Scout master, Bill Murray and Frances McDormand as Suzy’s parents, and Tilda Swinton as Social Services. No name. Just Social Services.
There is a sense of the mythic as Sam and Suzy experience their adventures, accompanied by Bob Balaban as a nameless narrator who leads us on the journey preparing us for the climactic literal and metaphorical storm that ends the movie. I’ve seen this movie at least half a dozen times, and of all the Wes Anderson movies, this is by far my favorite.
5. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
The most recent of Wes Anderson movies was also a period piece, this time in the fictional Eastern European country of Zubrowka in 1932. Inspired by Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, who died during World War II, the fanciful yet deeply unsettling and tragic tale tells of Monsieur Gustave H., played with ’30s grandeur by Ralph Fiennes, and his continuing friendship with young lobby boy Zero Mustafe, played as a young man by Tony Revolori, spotlighting again Anderson’s uncanny ability to cast his films unerringly. Again, Anderson creates an imposing set piece of the hotel and the fictitious settings and adds new elements to his arsenal. The film is a flashback within a flashback within a flashback as a modern-day girl reads the tale of an author interviewing Mustafa (played as an old man by F. Murray Abraham) about the glory days of the Grand Budapest Hotel. Each sequence unfolds in a different aspect ratio as Anderson is able to play fully with different styles of composition and presentation within each time period.
The story also echoes the rise of fascism and the tragic loss of an old European world in the 1930s, bringing a sense of heft and tragedy to the film. For someone who is often criticized for excessive whimsy, Anderson makes films far more packed with darkness and death than he’s ever given credit for, and his latest live-action film is perhaps the darkest of all.