Fans of Wes Anderson are accustomed to the director’s distinct visual style, one that favors symmetry, a bright color palette, and immense detail – but don’t mistake this aesthetic detail for style over substance.
Anderson’s 2014 film The Grand Budapest Hotel – his most ambitious project so far – took home a well-deserved Oscar for its production design. A decadent mountaintop hotel, the estate of a wealthy elderly woman, an eastern European prison, and an esteemed pastry shop made up just a few of the settings for the film. While the production design of the film was undeniably impressive, the film packs an emotional punch that speaks to Anderson’s skill as a storyteller, not just a craftsman.
Despite the meticulous production design of his films, it would be a mistake to perceive Anderson’s aesthetic mindfulness for artifice or worse, contrived superficiality. To do so would be to ignore the intense emotional landscapes upon which he builds his stories.
Anderson’s movies are not just exercises in aesthetic; they are interrogations into the profound impact of loss on the human psyche that use aesthetic design to counterbalance the heavier thematic elements of the story.
Almost all of Anderson’s movies are grounded in some way in loss, frequently in death. The characters in his stories are often coping or preoccupied with death. In and of itself, this characteristic is not particularly unique. What sets Anderson’s work apart is the manner in which his characters deal with loss.
Rather than exhibiting traditional displays of grief, Anderson’s characters are take adventures and find themselves distracted by misfortunes full of off-beat humor and palliative whimsy.
Take one of Anderson’s earliest films as an example. The Royal Tenenbaums features three very intelligent, but struggling adult siblings – two of whom are outwardly struggling with depression and one that attempts suicide. These elements exist as a part of the film’s tapestry of idiosyncrasies that make these characters feel both foreign and familiar.
Since we are used to seeing these elements depicted in a dour manner, it may be tempting to view Anderson’s handling here as insensitive. However, it’s clear in the film that Anderson cares deeply for these characters. By adopting a tone and visual style that is contradictory to these narrative elements, Anderson is able to deliver a more personalized statement, one that feels genuine, earnest, and not at all artificial.
Anderson’s preoccupation with loss doesn’t end there. In fact, if there are two constants in his films it’s that they will be highly stylized and about very lonely individuals. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is a story about a man coping with the loss of his best friend, of his wife, and ultimately of someone he took on as a son.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is a tale of decay – the fall from glory of one hotel, one hotel concierge, and one lobby boy. Rushmore follows a lonely and eccentric teenage boy that falls in love with a teacher whose husband recently died. The Darjeeling Limited follows three brothers coping with their father’s death and the death of a local boy who dies in an accident despite their attempt to save him.
Despite the claims of some of his detractors, Anderson is not primarily concerned with aesthetic. In fact, his strength as a filmmaker comes from his very manipulation of aesthetic that creates a compelling tension between the subtle melancholy of his films.
The skill with which Anderson grafts complex emotional landscapes onto films that don’t look the park makes him one of the most compelling filmmakers working today. Anderson is a master of his craft, not because he is capable of creating a single impressive frame, but that he can create a series of frames that add up to substantive and meaningful ends. This is also what makes his newest film Isle of Dogs such a fascinating movie.
Isle of Dogs, a stop motion film about talking dogs, is not the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks about a quote-unquote serious film. However, Anderson’s interest in breaking from convention – making a complex films with a paradoxical visual style – makes Isle of Dogs one of the most exciting films of the year so far.
Like so many of his films, Isle of Dogs is principally a story of loss. The film opens by introducing the audience to the fictional city of Megasaki City, where a viral outbreak has led to the government exiling all dogs to Trash Island. This decision, one with plenty of underlying political implications, ultimately narrows to a more insular story of one boy’s journey to reclaim his lost dog.
This composite of one intimate story told against the backdrop of a much larger one is something Anderson has toyed with before, but he has never worked so successfully on such a large scale. This is rather ironic considering that as a stop motion film, the movie is actually made up of thousands of miniature models.
This is the poeticism of Anderson’s style – his aesthetic, albeit small and detail oriented, is not overly preoccupied with style over substance. Quite the opposite! Anderson’s style is simply a gateway to achieving far more ambitious ends.
In Isle of Dogs, Anderson explores loss, rejection, the need for companionship and the lengths we will go to satisfy that need. It delves into the manipulation of public opinion, the damaging impacts of industrialization, and how the bonds between friends and family transcend boundaries, even those between species.
The film is a fitting installment in Anderson’s career, one that continues to balance aesthetic craftsmanship and his examination of the human – or canine – spirit.
The film’s most poignant arc follows Chief, a stray dog exiled to Trash Island that holds no sentimentality for a relationship with a human. However, when a 12-year-old boy Atari crash lands on the island in search of his dog Spots, Chief slowly but surely opens up to the boy. Chief, who begins the story seemingly disinterested in connection and contented with his loneliness, finds himself inextricability linked to Atari.
Chief’s transformation from stray dog to close companion is deeply affecting, an ode to friendship and proof of the impermanence of loneliness. Chief’s story is not unlike those that we’ve seen in Anderson’s other films about those souls lost and searching for more.
Wes Anderson continues to prove those who claim his films are “style over substance” simply aren’t paying attention.