"When one man, for whatever reason, has the opportunity to lead an extraordinary life, he has no right to keep it to himself." -- Jacques-Yves Cousteau, as inscribed in a book by Edward Appleby, donated to Rushmore Academy by Rosemary Cross and taken out of the library by Max Fischer.
Isle of Dogs is the second stop-motion animated feature from bespoke director Wes Anderson. But as with Fantastic Mr. Fox, he doesn't do much to tamp his usual obsessions: Dogs is an explosion of style, cinephile references, and meticulous whimsy, and another ride on the see-saw between melancholy and madcap, only with more fur. No one (except for maybe Czech animator Jiří Barta) is making anything with this level of handcrafted expertise right now, and few filmmakers have so mastered deadpan humor. It's a heck of a formula.
A few years ago I got into a discussion with a bearded film bro who, much to my surprise, was unimpressed by Wes Anderson.
How can you not like Wes Anderson? What's not to like?
He pinpointed the moment in Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson's seventh film, in which the young, on-the-lam lovers Sam and Suzy finally have a moment to dig into their heretofore epistolary relationship. Suzy grabs her suitcase and, eliciting snide chuckles from my anti-Anderson acquaintance, she "literally unpacks a load of quirky signifiers meant to represent her character. It's as if Wes Anderson finally gave up on writing a scene."
I had no retort. In fact, I still don't. I mean, he isn't wrong. The thing is: Who cares?
As part of my due diligence to rank Wes Anderson's CV in the order of my personal taste (and, therefore, their empirical greatness) I mass-dosed on the man's work over the course of a few days. (Not too difficult, he's only made nine features, and all of them are streamable except the latest.) My primary takeaway: more so than any other major director of our time, Wes Anderson's films are the same damn movie over and over.
Wes Anderson's movies let production design, clothing, cultural references and a not-quite-realistic way of speaking do the heavy lifting to create empathy. Maybe the films are just a panoply of easily reproduced Halloween costumes (were you a Richie or Margot Tenenbaum one year?), minor-chord Kinks songs, inserts of notes, cards or itineraries shot from above and a fanatical devotion to the Futura font. Is this a crime? If you do something well, why not reach for a permutation that much closer to perfection?
In an Anderson story, you are likely to find bickering characters fighting to see who is the leader, or perhaps trying to win favor of a father figure. Eight of nine films feature a character grieving over dead loved one. Most characters are smart and sophisticated, oftentimes smooth talkers who are quick to downshift into declarations of deep insecurity. Everyone wears their heart on their sleeve, but can quickly become nasty. There's usually a big heist or a chase at the end.
The main character is impulsive and reckless and unbelievably charismatic, but sometimes a bonafide jerk. Royal Tenenbaum is a racist. Steve Zissou is a homophobe. Max Fischer does not respect that no means no. The Bottle Rocket guys are rich kids but still rob a bookstore (a bookstore!) at gunpoint. Rita (aka "Sweet Lime"), the stewardess on the Darjeeling Limited, seems to be using Jack Whitman just as much as he is using her, but the jury's still out on that. Mr. Fox lies to his wife.
The cartoonish Suzy from Moonrise Kingdom and Margot Tenenbaum are the closest thing to "real" women in these movies. They are also very similar, from their bookishness, their decision to "run away" and their heavy use of eye makeup. Wes Anderson's lead (and always male) characters are all precocious pre-teens at heart, and terrified of/unfamiliar with girls. Steve Zissou actually calls 11-and-a-half his "favorite age."
These recurring themes, plus the more granular instances, like repeated joke setups (Jason Schwartzman, nephew of Francis Ford Coppola, makes two Godfather jokes!), visual motifs (animal print wallpaper) use of montage and the oft-mocked use of symmetrical framing (balanced by the less-discussed frenetic handheld shots) are, in my opinion, the mark of a great artist. Talk to any particle physicist, The Answer will come from pattern recognition.
Wes Anderson has made nine feature films. Eight are great. Seven are fantastic. Sussing out the pinnacle of his work, suffice it to say, was quite difficult. I will accept any notes of condolences you wish to send, but please send them by post on personalized stationery.