I was amused to discover, a few months after the fact, that none other than National Geographic interviewed Wes Anderson in December about The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. It’s a brief but entertaining softball toss, with Anderson fielding questions like “Did any Lord of the Flies stuff go on? Was there a conch shell?”
It’s been a couple of months now since I caught up with The Life Aquatic. After The Royal Tenenbaums I had just about given up on Anderson. I missed Bottle Rocket but enjoyed Rushmore, in no small part thanks to Bill Murray’s presence. But in Tenenbaums I couldn’t escape the feeling that I was being subjected to some overachieving ninth-grade geek’s school project: a lovingly and ingeniously detailed diorama, a thing to behold, but airless and unpeopled. Filled with stars, sure–but unpeopled. It made me want to pat him on the head and go home to read a simple book. When I got a load of the trailer for The Life Aquatic, it just screamed more of the same–a diorama with a Hollywood budget, heaven help us. The Tenenbaums’ townhouse taken to the nth degree. I was not hopeful.
To my surprise, however, The Life Aquatic was a pleasure. Even Owen Wilson…especially Owen Wilson? Could be. For whatever reason, I was able to take this movie seriously and even respond to it emotionally, despite the basic premise being even more precious and imaginatively labored than that of Tenenbaums. The closest I’ve come to figuring out the difference between it and its predecessor is this: animals. They’re ubiquitous in The Life Aquatic: real cats and dogs and invented fish, lounging in the background, trotting alongside the characters, populating the aqua. Animals don’t do irony, and for me their near-constant presence cut against that overweening irony Anderson is so prone to. Anderson loves deadpan, but these beasties out-deadpan the characters by a mile, with no disingenuousness about it. Maybe his next career move should be to drop those Wilson boys altogether and make some nature specials–I daresay National Geographic would get on board.