In terms of the size of his body of work, Wes Anderson is still a fairly young filmmaker; however, he's hit his stride so quickly – and the films he's made have displayed such commitment to his personal narrative vision – that he's already established himself as one of the most well-regarded writer/directors of our time. He seems to have found a comfortable rhythm of releasing a film every two or three years. This time around, it's Moonrise Kingdom, which features his customary ensemble cast of old and new faces: Bruce Willis, Tilda Swinton, Edward Norton, Frances McDormand, Jason Schwartzman, and, of course, the great Bill Murray. It's rare for a film to generate so much anticipatory excitement among moviegoers of all ages and tastes, but that's the power Wes Anderson wields over our collective imagination. Before embarking on this new adventure, let's take a look back at three of his most iconic works – his “trilogy” that examines the three stages of human life:
Rushmore (1998) – This is the film that put Wes Anderson on the map, in terms of popular success. It's an off-kilter tale of immature infatuation told with a precise and deliberate theatricality. In many ways, it's the first “true” Wes Anderson film, in that it establishes the parameters of his unique storytelling style: carefully-staged scenes filmed head-on like a painting or a play, a soundtrack of classic songs from the '60s and '70s, intentionally stilted dialogue, and characters that embody archetypal passions. In this instance, a young man pretends to be an adult in order to escape the sharp discomfort of adolescence, while an older man behaves like an adolescent in order to escape the melancholic malaise of adult life. Had Anderson not settled on Rushmore, the film could easily have been titled Youth. Its atmosphere is thick with nostalgia, and the raw alternating currents of respect and rivalry that flow between Max (Jason Schwartzman) and Herman (Bill Murray) are at once beautiful and painful to behold.
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) – Probably Anderson's masterpiece, The Royal Tenenbaums takes the style he developed in Rushmore and uses it to its maximum effect. The film, whose imaginary subtitle reads Adulthood, follows the twists of fortune of a group of eccentric characters – once members of a celebrated “family of geniuses” – who reunite after years of bitterness and estrangement. Interestingly, a few misguided viewers have been heard to complain that they had a hard time caring about this bunch of overprivileged kooks. They're missing the point, which is that the “family of geniuses” angle is merely a metaphorical device Anderson uses to capture the feeling of specialness we all had about our families when we were kids – before we discovered that we're all human beings with human flaws that can tear us apart if we're not careful.
In the final estimation, the Tenenbaums aren't any smarter nor even more fortunate than the rest of us. They spend years and years trapped in misery, addiction, anxiety, and loneliness because they can't see the essential goodness in each other. What sets this film above the others and makes it truly one of the best ever made is the brilliantly paced buildup of emotions which seem petty and silly at the time, but which culminate in one of the most harrowing scenes ever put to film: the one in which the family's most sensitive member, Richie (Luke Wilson), finally can't take the stress anymore and does something terrifying. The Royal Tenenbaums uses little tricks of exaggeration to show us a larger-than-life image our own families. It describes the way in which time can allow us to forgive each other, and – in the most unassuming of ways – it's somehow able to explain how a human family can be simultaneously a hell of suffocating despair and a crucible of healing which ennobles us and allows us to discover our better natures.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) – The alternate title for this one would be Old Age, and the first thing to say about it is that it's far better than many people give it credit for upon first viewing. It certainly challenges you more than the others – and with Anderson's typical daring, it stretches its narrative devices almost to the breaking point. For instance, can the faded star of a once-popular TV series about marine exploration possibly function as an allegorical stand-in for the human spirit struggling in the face of mortality? Yes, he can if he's played by the incomparable Bill Murray, and also if you're willing to put in a little extra effort to connect the thematic dots that Anderson is laying out along the way. It helps if you've read The Old Man and the Sea and have at least a Cliff's-Notes knowledge of what Moby Dick is getting at. Once you place The Life Aquatic in this literary context and in the context of the two preceding films, it becomes every bit as heart-rending. Zissou is facing the end of his professional career, the end of his virility as a man, a desperate reach for an uncertain and perhaps nonexistent legacy – and the battle that he's chosen to restore meaning to his life is one that he's already lost long before his journey begins. The ocean he once loved represents the human sense of wonder and curiosity about life, which makes Zissou's growing sense of alienation from it ruinously disturbing.
By using stop-motion animation to depict imaginary sea animals rather than realistic ones, Anderson is cluing us into the fact that Zissou's odyssey isn't meant to be taken literally; it's a symbolic quest to beat back the tides of time, fate, nature, and eternity – a quest that every human being attempts to undertake, and a quest that every human being, without exception, fails to accomplish. We all have to let go of our ambitions in the end and accept that we will someday be completely forgotten. Lines like, “I wonder if he remembers me,” and “This is an adventure,” will burn themselves into your soul once you understand their significance. Add to this an end-credits sequence copied directly from The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai – a madly over-the-top film about a similar team of scientists led by a man so cool and capable that he can perform brain surgery, tame particle physics, play a killer rock show, and save the world from aliens all on the same day – and the melancholy of Zissou's slow decline becomes even more stark.
Our focus on these three isn't meant to diminish Anderson's other work: Bottle Rocket, The Darjeeling Limited, and Fantastic Mr. Foxare all fine films in their own right. Nor is it meant to underplay the contributions of his co-writers: Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, Noah Baumbach, and Roman Coppola are invaluable collaborators. However, we have to ultimately see these as Anderson's films, and it's this thematic trilogy that stands out in most people's minds as best displaying what's great about his approach to storytelling. Anderson excels at taking characters no one has any earthly reason to care about, inflating them into absurd living cartoons, and then dropping the floor out from under them to reveal unguessed fathoms of emotional depth – and often emotional strength. His films feel like precisely-planned fairground rides that suddenly shudder and veer in directions you'd never expect, leaving you wrung out and filled with the peace that comes from having passed through extremity. Truth is, we're all characters that no one has any earthly reason to care about, and if Moonrise Kingdom is anything like Wes Anderson's previous work, it will show us people that reflect ourselves in their ridiculous obsessions, awkward grace, and final impossible worth.
Focus Features' 'Moonrise Kingdom' is currently in limited release.