The opening image of The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) provides a valuable portal into the mind of director Wes Anderson.
Accompanied by dream-like music, we see a book placed on a wooden desk. The book is rotated, opened, and the library card within is stamped. The book is then closed — revealing its title, The Royal Tenenbaums.
It’s a nice meta touch, but it’s also Anderson telling us about the potential of movies as an art form.
When discussing books in relation to their film adaptations, one cliché is so ubiquitous it’s virtually taken for granted: “The movie isn’t as good as the book.”
Given this, we can’t blame filmmakers for developing an inferiority complex; and yet many of our most passionate and visionary artists and storytellers have chosen film as their primary medium of expression.
Wes Anderson is one such person; and by beginning The Royal Tenenbaums with such a direct comparison between films and books he is implying that films can be just as rich and rewarding as the printed word.
The rest of the movie goes on to prove exactly that.
The plot revolves around a family of child prodigies played by Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson, and Gwyneth Paltrow that crumbled into dysfunction due to the paternal incompetence of their father, Royal (Gene Hackman).
Royal, “a prominent litigator until he was disbarred and briefly imprisoned,” spends most of the movie trying to patch things up with his kids and win back his estranged wife, Etheline (Angelica Huston).
The actors all deal with the screenplay’s deadpan dialogue wonderfully, but Anderson’s mise en scène steals the show.
Every frame is so rich with detail that a Wes Anderson fan can still find himself smiling with new discoveries after a dozen viewings.
I love the way seemingly inconsequential elements of the movie continue to weave themselves into the plot long after they should rightfully have been forgotten.
For example, early in the story we learn that Chas (Ben Stiller) bred Dalmatian mice as a kid. Such mice show up continually in odd locations throughout the film.
In another instance, we see a wall full of art in the Tenenbaum’s home, but there is a darkened patch where something has obviously been removed. Later, Royal finds the missing item in a closet; it is a stuffed warthog head. Later still, Ritchie (Luke Wilson) rehangs the piece in its original location. Anderson brilliantly orchestrates these events so they resonate with the emotional arch of the film.
Beyond its immaculate construction, The Royal Tenenbaums also manages to be hilarious and heartbreaking, and occasionally both simultaneously.
This summer Georgia Sauve and I watched all of Wes Anderson’s feature films in order, from the charmingly unpolished Bottle Rocket (1996) to the thoroughly delightful Grand Budapest Hotel (2014).
Very soon she will be leaving the territory to attend art school in Nelson, B.C. If any of Wes Anderson’s creative vision has rubbed off on her during the past few months, I can only assume that the following year will be a royal success for her.