Maybe I just needed to take a break from Wes Anderson, or maybe he just needed a break from us. His style seemed so remarkably fresh and delightful when I first watched Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums back in high school, and I’ll stand by both of those movies until the end of time. After that though, my love of Anderson hit a serious drought. I thought The Life Aquatic was an over indulgent mess, a film whose visual style was intricately designed but whose human story seemed shallow and distant from any real human experience. I didn’t like The Darjeeling Limited any better, largely because I found its characters completely unlikable and that their journey went absolutely nowhere (though admittedly, I might have to give that one a second chance). I skipped his 2009 stop-motion effort The Fantastic Mr. Fox out of my usual biases against family films (yes, I’ll catch up with it someday), so I hadn’t seen a new Anderson film since 2007. I don’t know if it’s because that five year wait has made me more receptive to his work or if he just needed five years between live action efforts, but I’ve got to say, I’m charmed all over again and I’m not exactly sure why.
Many of Wes Anderson’s films have drawn upon the music and aesthetic of the 1960s, but this is the first of his films to actually be set in that decade. It is not, however, set in a swinging “hippie” city; rather, it’s set on a New England Island with a distinctly small-town/rural feel to it. Our protagonists are Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) and Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman), a pair of precocious twelve year olds who’ve bonded because both feel misunderstood within their respective households. Suzy is the daughter of a pair of bickering lawyers (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) who don’t respond well to her moody and detached behavior, while Sam is an orphan living in a foster home, and in spite of his meek and somewhat nerdy looks he still finds himself in the middle of a whole lot of mischief. Early in the film Sam runs away from his tent in a “Khaki Scout” camp, to the distress of his troop leader, an enthusiastic math teacher named Randy Ward (Edward Norton). It becomes apparent that Suzy has also fled home and that the two plan to rendezvous in the woods and flee further (their endgame isn’t entirely clear). Suzy’s parents and scoutmaster Ward contact the island police chief Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), and Ward sends the rest of the scouts out into the woods to track the two children, who head deeper and deeper into the woods to some unknown destination.
The notion of running away from home as a sort of character-building adventure seems like a sort of relic of a bygone era, which is probably a big part of why Anderson chose to overtly set his film forty-some years ago. It’s a story-arc that harkens back to the days when young protagonists like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn could spend days on end independently going on river-rafting adventures and the concerns of their parents could be sort of an afterthought. To Anderson’s credit, these character’s somewhat unusual travel plans make perfect sense within the context of the film. Anderson perfectly expresses why these character’s would feel alienated in their homes and how they’d bond in spite of their somewhat divergent personalities. The story is somewhat reminiscent of the relationship between Margot and Richie Tenenbaum in the flashback sequences of The Royal Tenenbaums; and while that film would go on to show how such a relationship would not necessarily benefit these characters in the long term, this film focuses more on the feelings of his characters in the moment.
Anderson tells the story of these children from a distinctly childlike perspective in which seemingly small things feel more important than they really are. For instance, Sam prepares for his adventure meticulously and comes equipped with all sorts of survival techniques that he learned from the Khaki Scouts. Does he need all this stuff for a two day trip through the woods in temperate weather? No, but to him this is the adventure of a lifetime and he feels like it’s a matter of life and death. Similarly, both Suzy and Sam take their puppy love relationship way too seriously and seem to think that they’re going to be together forever. As an audience we know this is ridiculous, but the kids don’t know that and Anderson doesn’t depict their feelings in a condescending way. In fact much of the audience’s enjoyment of the film likely depends on their ability to sympathize with these characters rather than judge them. Make no mistake, this movie is earnest in a way that only a Wes Anderson movie can be, and if you go into it ready to accept a certain amount of sincerity, the movie is not going to reward you.
Those expecting some new stylistic ground to be broken by Anderson will probably be disappointed with what they see here, but that presupposes that anything was necessarily broken in the first place. Anderson’s camera angles are as meticulously planned out as ever, and the New England island the film is set on is every bit as whimsical as any other location you’re likely to see in one of Anderson’s films. The sets are a bit less meticulous than they have been in films like The Life Aquatic, but that’s largely a function of the film’s rural locations. One clear divergence is that the film is much less reliant on popular music than some of Anderson’s previous films. There are a couple of old Hank Williams tracks used to emphasize the outdoors adventure elements and some odd “classical music for children” records are featured, but most of the music in the film comes from an original score by Alexandre Desplat. This score largely plays into the whimsy of the film, giving it a sort of ethereal fairy tale feel.
This fairy tale feeling becomes especially apparent late in the film when the story increasingly diverges from reality and into some rather absurd territory. If I have any complaints about the film it’s this material as well as some of the sections earlier in the film when it cuts to the adult characters. These adult characters at times act every bit a childish as the children and these sections in many ways felt increasingly like some of the lesser material in Wes Anderson’s last couple of films. Still, I can’t help but feel like this was a return to form for Anderson, even if it never quite reaches the heights of Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums. Truth be told, I don’t know that it’s ever going to be possible for Anderson to recapture the magic he was able to find when making those two movies, but I’ve come to the point where I’m ready to accept the next best thing. This movie will not impress those who’ve never been in Anderson’s camp to begin with, but for people like me who’ve liked his style in the past but become disillusioned, this is worth checking out.