The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

The Hobbit - An Unexpected Journey (poster)

 

Today’s cinema adventure: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Peter Jackson’s long-anticipated return to the works of celebrated fantasy author J.R.R. Tolkien, whose three-part saga, The Lord of the Rings, provided the basis for the director’s phenomenally successful and critically-acclaimed trilogy of the same name.  Adapted- and expanded- from Tolkien’s earlier novel, The Hobbit, it constitutes the first part of a second trilogy which serves as a sort of prequel to The Lord of the Rings, telling of the young Bilbo Baggins’ adventures when he joins the quest of a band of Dwarves to reclaim their homeland from an ancient dragon who has taken it as his own- an expedition which sets into motion several events that will have great consequence in the later story.  Sure to be a major success on the basis of fan interest alone, it has met so far with somewhat mixed response- mostly due to Jackson’s decision to supplement the relatively short novel with additional material that connects it to the later events portrayed in The Lord of the Rings– and facilitates the splitting of its narrative into three separate films.  Reaction has also been divided about his choice to shoot the film at 48 frames per second (twice as fast as the standard rate), resulting in an ultra-high resolution image which gives his movie an almost hyper-real look, particularly when coupled with the 3D and IMAX formats in which it has been widely released.  Nevertheless, the majority of critics and audiences have been enthusiastic in their welcome for this adaptation of the much-beloved tale, and it undoubtedly marks the beginning of another triumphant achievement for Jackson and his creative collaborators.

The Hobbit, published over a decade earlier than The Lord of the Rings, was written by Tolkien as a stand-alone book, though its narrative was part of the much longer and intricately detailed story of Middle-earth that he had been developing since his youth.  The book was a success- so much so that it achieved classic status, eventually allowing Tolkien to publish the iconic trilogy of novels which turned him- and the mythical world he created, along with its inhabitants- into a cultural icon.  In an appendix at the end of The Lord of the Rings, the author provides a detailed timeline of the entire history of Middle-earth, with particular emphasis on the events leading up to the War of the Rings, which is specifically chronicled within the trilogy.  The beginnings of this great conflict coincide with the timeline of The Hobbit, through which Tolkien provided glimpses of his larger saga within the peripheral details of the central plot.  An Unexpected Journey, as mentioned, incorporates this material into its adaptation of The Hobbit proper, placing the story into the larger context of the complete epic tale.  The film begins in precisely the same time and place as the previous trilogy, at the home of Bilbo Baggins, an aged hobbit (or “halfling”) who has begun to write the history of his personal adventures, many years before, in the far-flung corners of Middle-earth.  We are transported back, as he remembers his youth, to a day 60 years prior, when Gandalf, a wandering wizard once acquainted with his family, arrives at his door to invite him on an adventure.  Bilbo, accustomed (as most of his people are) to the predictable comfort and security of his home in the Shire, declines; Gandalf, however, is not dissuaded so easily, and later that night the young hobbit is surprised to be playing host to a company of Dwarves who arrive unexpectedly, claiming to have been summoned to his home- by the wizard, who explains that he has offered Bilbo’s services as a “burglar” to assist the Dwarves in a quest to regain their ancient home under the distant Lonely Mountain, where a powerful dragon named Smaug, many years before, laid waste to their kingdom, Erebor, and claimed their vast wealth as his own private treasure trove.  Bilbo, horrified, again declines to join the expedition, protesting that he not only has no experience as a burglar but that he would, in fact, be useless on any such quest- an assessment with which the Dwarves are inclined to agree, particularly their leader, Thorin Oakenshield, heir to the throne of the kingdom under the mountain and a proven and powerful warrior.  Nevertheless, the shrewd wizard eventually persuades Bilbo, who has long suppressed a childhood yearning for adventure, to accept the job, and the hobbit joins his new comrades as they begin their long journey.  As they make their way, they encounter obstacles and enemies the likes of which the fledgling adventurer has never seen, including hungry trolls, greedy goblins, and bloodthirsty orcs- foul, mutated creatures who seem bent on pursuing them, and whose ferocious chieftain seeks a personal vendetta against Thorin.  Meanwhile, it becomes apparent that Gandalf has a larger agenda as he accompanies the fellowship; in his secret role as one of the White Council, an alliance of wizards and elves that serve as protectors of Middle-earth, he has begun to sense the growing influence of a dark and ancient presence returning to the land- a fear which he shares with his fellow guardians when the company arrives for a brief respite at the Elven capitol of Rivendell.  However, the answers he seeks remain yet hidden in the shadows, and the fate of the Dwarvish quest demands his more immediate attention.  Eventually, the band’s travels bring them within sight of their destination- but not before Bilbo manages his first successful “burglary” by stealing away the most “precious” possession of a treacherous subterranean creature named Gollum, beginning a greater adventure that will eventually decide the fate of Middle-earth itself.

The Hobbit, as written by Tolkien, was aimed at younger readers; though not exactly a children’s book, it is considerably lighter in tone than the epic trilogy which followed, with a less austere literary style and a higher level of whimsy to soften the heaviness of the story’s darker elements.  Even so, the heart of its story lies in the fabric of this remarkable writer’s meticulously plotted history of Middle-earth, a complex and lifelong undertaking inspired by his desire to create a definitively English mythology and informed by his passion for philology.  This imaginary chronicle, produced over the course of decades, provided a depth of background for his writings that lends an unprecedented level of authenticity to the fantasy world in which they are set, complete with vivid geographical detail, cultural and linguistic traditions for all of the various races which populate it, and a fully developed cosmology.  This fullness is one of the qualities which helped to make both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings into cultural phenomena, and legions of fans have hungrily devoured every scrap of the copious background material from which it arises, through its later publication in books like The Silmarillion, by Tolkien himself, and the collected volumes of history assembled by his son.  It is with these kinds of fans in mind that Peter Jackson- along with his partner, Fran Walsh, and their longtime collaborator, Philippa Boyens- decided to expand the narrative of The Hobbit with the inclusion of story elements that provide background and foundation for the later events depicted in The Lord of the Rings.  Operating from the conceit that Bilbo’s adventures, as related in the novel itself, are only a part of the whole story, the screenplay, by the three aforementioned collaborators (along with Guillermo del Toro, who was originally slated to direct), weaves the story of the Dwarves’ quest into the larger story arc that links The Hobbit to its more ambitious successor; the introduction of the great ring of power, pilfered by Bilbo in the subterranean lair of the pathetic Gollum (the only episode in the novel that bears significant continuity into the later books), is here seen within the context of other circumstances revealed by Tolkien only in his extraneous writings.  Thus, An Unexpected Journey is not simply an adaptation of The Hobbit, but an ambitious effort to create a more complete vision of Tolkien’s mythic realm, fleshing out the depiction of “behind the scenes” activity- such as the meeting of the White Council and the discoveries of Radagast the Brown- in order to tell more of the complete saga as the author composed it in his own imagination.

Of course, it goes without saying the Jackson and his co-writers are themselves the kind of fans at which they have aimed their own movie; it’s clear from the outset that An Unexpected Journey is as much a labor of love as The Lord of the Rings, and even more of a dream project in the sense that the creators have the opportunity for bringing to light many of the things that have, until now, remained tantalizingly hidden between the lines.   The inclusion of these “extra” scenes, of course, begs the question of how faithful Jackson et al‘s vision can be to Tolkien’s intent when the author himself chose not to include them in the book.  The answer is, I think, very faithful indeed.  An Unexpected Journey contains very little that doesn’t come directly from Tolkien, except for the kind of embellishment of detail that is necessary when realizing a written work into cinematic form; the author wrote descriptions of all the so-called “extra” scenes, and though they were omitted from The Hobbit because they were irrelevant to the book’s self-contained purpose, they were nevertheless part of his complete vision.  Jackson and crew have given us a chance to see that vision come to life, and they have done it with relish.

There is actually very little I can say about The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, at least in terms of standard critical commentary.  There are those who have a passion for this kind of fantasy adventure story, and there are others who have an equally passionate dislike.  No argument is likely to persuade one side or the other to change their view, and those two camps are going to either love this movie, or hate it, regardless of what anyone says; but for those many viewers in between, some guidance may be offered.  Casual fans of Tolkien’s books, who may not be well-versed in the surrounding lore, may find themselves confused by the inclusion of characters and concerns from the later trilogy, and might also feel that these elements muddle the focus of the main narrative, which centers wholly on Bilbo and his transformation from humble homebody to seasoned adventurer.  Likewise, those who have only come to the world of Middle-earth through exposure to Jackson’s earlier films might find themselves feeling a sense of all-too-familiarity over things we’ve seen before, or may not get the point of spending time on a plot line for which we have already seen the eventual outcome; this, of course, is always the pitfall of  “prequels,” and it is one which many viewers might feel is particularly needless here, when the source material does not itself contain these elements.  It is important to remember, however, that An Unexpected Journey is the first installment of a trilogy, and much of its content is meant as a set-up to the events which are to follow; though one may quibble about the necessity for padding out an already rich and complex storyline, or question the motivation for turning a single novel (which is, incidentally, shorter in itself than any of the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings) into multiple sure-fire hit movies, Jackson’s vision is an ambitious one.  He is bent on building as complete an embodiment of Tolkien’s mythos as possible, one which draws not only on the content of the novels as published but on the supplementary material with which the author infused them.  To put it another way, he is thinking “outside the box” in order to capture the total experience of the author’s epic saga in a cinematic form that both elaborates on its details and remains true in spirit to his ultimate intent and purpose.  As with any artistic translation of a pre-existing work- particularly when the original artist is no longer around to consult- there is a necessity for personal interpretation; but Jackson and his team, who are die-hard fans of the first degree, are certainly as qualified to interpret with as much validity as anyone, and with their proven mastery of the kind of breathtaking visual storytelling required, they are obviously more than up to the task.

The level of perfection and coherence to which Jackson aspires is evidenced by the painstaking efforts he has made to connect his new trilogy to the previous one with as much unity as possible.  Settings which are shared by both are duplicated in detail, and returning characters are portrayed by the same actors (with the semi-exception of Bilbo, whose younger incarnation is now represented by Martin Freeman- though original actor Ian Holm reprises his appearance as the older version of the title character).  In addition, the visual style of the original film series is maintained through the richly detailed design work, inspired by the decades of illustrative art connected to Tolkien’s books- in particular those of Alan Lee and John Howe, who served as visual consultants on this film (and its future follow-ups) as they did on the original Jackson trilogy; needless to say, the high-tech magic used to bring life to the various denizens of Middle-earth and their exploits is once again a marvel of imagination merged with state-of-the-art wizardry, and the creation of props, costumes and make-up which convincingly capture the cultural character of the land and its population is once again executed with astute perfectionism.  An Unexpected Journey is cut so distinctly from the same cloth as its spectacular predecessors that it is clear the filmmaker intends, when all is said and done, for this new trilogy to be seamlessly bound to The Lord of the Rings as a single, unified whole.

Further enhancing this continuity is the welcome return of Howard Shore’s magisterial musical scoring, an indispensable element of The Lord of the Rings, which manages the remarkable feat of incorporating here the themes and motifs created for the previous trilogy while weaving them into the new material composed specifically for The Hobbit.  It’s the same technique which gave each of the three original films their own distinctive sound yet tied them all together, as well as adding a valuable aural component to the storytelling, and once again it serves its purpose well; the soundtrack has that rare quality of seeming instantly familiar, like music you have somehow known all your life without ever having heard it before, much in the same way that the story feels like an ancient memory of some long-forgotten dream.  Tolkien’s books touch the realm of archetypes, and, like Jackson, Shore has the skill to enhance this deep unconscious connection in a powerful and irresistible way.

In the same vein are the performances; though this kind of acting is rarely acknowledged when awards are handed out every year, the ability to convey humanity and make emotional connection while playing in a necessarily heightened style is a delicate gift, and Jackson has once more populated his epic with performers who are up to the job.  Returnees Ian McKellen (whose magnificent Gandalf has been one of the highlights of the series from the beginning, and is a particular delight this time around), Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, and the venerable Christopher Lee (whose personal expertise on the Tolkien canon has been of vital importance to Jackson’s project offscreen, as well)- as well as the aforementioned Holm and Elijah Wood (in a brief cameo)- are all seasoned purveyors of this craft, by now, and have become the quintessential embodiment of their characters; it is a pleasure to see them, however brief their involvement.  The new cast members, however, are every bit their equal in terms of capturing the necessary flavor; Jackson’s month-long pre-filming regime of combat and horseback training, designed with the dual purpose of establishing a tight-knit camaraderie among the players, no doubt contributed to the chemistry that is evident onscreen, and his ensemble provides a superbly symbiotic assortment of performances which are each destined to become as iconic as those from The Lord of the Rings.  Of particular note are Richard Armitage- whose brooding intensity gives Thorin Oakenshield a powerful charisma which complements his role as the destined ruler of the Dwarves- and Sylvester McCoy- whose memorable turn fleshes out Radagast the Brown, a peripheral character that has always been a subject of fan curiosity through importance of his role in the saga and the brief-but-vivid descriptions he received in Tolkien’s work.  Mention must be made as well of Andy Serkis, whose mesmerizing performance as Gollum- achieved through motion capture technology but executed live on set with his co-stars and derived entirely from his real expressions and physicality- was one of the most acclaimed elements of The Lord of the Rings and comes close to stealing the entire movie in his single scene here.  Finally, Martin Freeman is the perfect Bilbo Baggins; down-to-earth, likable, comical, and yet endowed with a great and generous spirit that shines through from early on, it is no wonder that he was Jackson’s first and only real choice for the role- the production schedule was completely rearranged to fit the actor’s availability- and his understated, everyman charm (rightly, since it’s Bilbo’s story) provides the heart and soul to the film.

There are so many wonders on display in An Unexpected Journey, and to list them all would be pointless; far better to let you discover them for yourself.  On that subject, the issue of presentation becomes an important factor.  Jackson’s audacious decision to shoot his film in the double-rate format of 48 fps. has generated much debate- and quite a few complaints from viewers who find the resulting depth and clarity to be disorienting and distracting- particularly when combined with the seemingly obligatory 3D and IMAX formats, as well as a tendency to make the various and extensive special effects trickery appear, well, obviously fake.  In answer to this, I can only say it’s entirely a matter of personal taste; I myself have seen the film twice now, once in the full-blown mega-tech format and once in the plain old 2D standard version.  I was mesmerized both times, and I had no complaints- though I will say that my second viewing, free from the “ooh-aah” factor which accompanied my first time through, allowed me to focus more attention on the content of the story itself without the bedazzlement of total sensory experience.  The content is, of course, what ultimately matters more than the gimmickry of its presentation, and it must be noted that eventually, when the film is viewed as it will later be, without the trappings of big screen showmanship on millions of smaller home screens around the world, it will be that content upon which viewers will base their judgment of the film.  In the meantime, those with a low threshold for technical bells and whistles might do well to skip the deluxe experience and visit your humble neighborhood theater; the tickets will be cheaper, and you will be able to focus on the essence of the film without the distraction of feeling more completely immersed in an imaginary world than you want to be.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is, ultimately, a film for fans.  That doesn’t make for a limited appeal, in this case; Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy was one of the most popular and acclaimed film franchises of all time, and the devotion that it engenders in its fans rivals that of such other cultural phenomena as Star Wars and Harry Potter.  There will be many, of course, who will adopt a dilettante attitude towards the new trilogy, perhaps for no other reason than to separate themselves from the crowd, just as there have been critics who seemingly were poised and ready to attack the film before it was even released.  There are probably audiences who will feel that this new film is really just “more of the same,” and admittedly there are a few elements that seem like repetition of things we’ve already seen- though of course these moments are faithful to the source material, and to change or excise them would be untrue to Tolkien’s story.  No doubt the majority of fans, however, will be thrilled at the chance to return to Jackson’s rendition of Middle-earth, and will eagerly anticipate the remaining entries over the course of the next two years.  I must, in the interest of full disclosure, admit than I am definitely in this last category; it would be hard for me to have found fault with An Unexpected Journey, short of a total botch job by its director, which was never very likely- though not it’s certainly not unheard of for a trusted filmmaker to drop the ball when remounting a beloved franchise (dare I mention George Lucas’ The Phantom Menace?).  The truth is that expectation has so much to do with the enjoyment of a cinematic experience that it is sometimes impossible to have an objective reaction, particularly with a highly anticipated film such as this one.  To be sure, what it delivers might not match the expectations of many- but in reading some of the harsher reviews that have so far been published of An Unexpected Journey, I find it hard to believe they are talking about the same film I saw.  Perhaps it comes down to the “what-have-you-done-for-me-lately?” attitude that seems to pervade popular culture today, which results in a loss of interest for that which was once popular and a snarky skepticism about any attempt to revive a former glory.  Whatever the reason, there are many who would disparage Jackson for returning to familiar territory instead of taking a new direction; but exciting filmmaking does not always have to break new ground, nor does the desire to revisit a successful formula indicate a lack of creativity.  It is obvious that this New Zealander considers the definitive transfer of Tolkien’s work to the screen to be his life’s work, at least for now, and I, for one, couldn’t be more delighted.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0903624/

 

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The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)

Today’s cinema adventure: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Wes Anderson’s 2004 feature about a legendary oceanographer and his misadventurous quest for the giant “jaguar shark” that ate his partner.  Featuring a full array of Anderson’s trademark elements- and a cast which includes several members of his usual company of actors- it met with a mixed and bewildered response from critics, which probably played a large part in its failure at the box office, but received praise for the performance of its star, Bill Murray, and managed to earn a number of award nominations despite the lukewarm reception.  Though Anderson’s former writing partner, Owen Wilson, appears in a major role, this film marked the director’s first screenplay collaboration with fellow indie-filmmaker Noah Baumbach, a pairing which would later continue with the much more successful animated feature, Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Drawing its obvious inspiration from the real-life career of famed marine adventurer and inventor Jacques Cousteau, the plot concerns itself with the personal and professional tribulations of the title character as he embarks upon a mission to exact revenge on the possibly non-existent fish that killed his long-time colleague.  His long career, once marked by the popularity and success of the documentary films he produced of his exploits, has fallen into decline, while his personal life is in similar disarray with the onset of a mid-life crisis and the collapse of his marriage.  When his expedition is joined by a young man who is possibly his son, rivalries are sparked among the crew and Zissou finds himself struggling with his own fear of emotional connection, as things become increasingly complicated by the presence of a pregnant reporter, an incursion of marauding pirates, and the interference of a rival oceanographer.  As Team Zissou journeys the seas in search of their elusive quarry, their leader must work out his personal issues as he scrambles to prevent the failure of the mission, which may be his last chance to save his faltering reputation.  True to Anderson’s form, the insular scenario provides a metaphoric framework for the emotional and psychological landscape of his characters, and as they negotiate the conflicts and obstacles of the plot, they are really working to resolve their own dysfunctional relationships with the world and themselves; and, as always, he draws on collective pop cultural memory to provide a distinctively quirky backdrop for his deadpan psychodrama.

In this case, that backdrop is designed to specifically evoke the juvenile imagination of the late-mid-century generation he represents, a world resembling a sort of mash-up between The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau and Jonny Quest; Zissou and his crew are not merely sea-going scientists and filmmakers, they serve as a sort of merry band of adventurers, facing intrigue and danger as they catalogue specimens, navigate unprotected waters, and weather the fickle opinions of the scientific community, film critics and their financial backers.  The sea life they encounter on their voyage is as fanciful and implausible as the names of the exotic places to which they travel, emphasizing even more the deliberate ridiculousness of the premise, and giving the whole film the air of a made-up adventure game played in the back yard after a Saturday morning cartoon marathon.  This pre-adolescent sensibility serves Anderson’s purpose in a two-fold way, suggesting thematic ideas that figure prominently in his tale.  It allows him to offer up a tongue-in-cheek exploration of the gap between the brave promise of the nuclear age and its failure to reach fruition in the reality of modern adult life.  Team Zissou’s adventurous voyage is a far cry from the optimistic visions portrayed in the treasured boyhood TV fantasies from which he has derived his inspiration; their highly-trained dolphin scouts are uncooperative and useless, they are saddled by their backers with a “bond company stooge,” and their space-age gadgetry has become broken-down equipment.  Though it’s a running source of humor throughout the movie, this pageant of ironic de-mystification carries a decided tone of sadness and disillusionment that undercuts the comical posturing and lends an unexpected poignancy to the proceedings; and appropriately so, for it informs the other major theme of the movie. The Life Aquatic is a film about boys who won’t- or can’t- grow up, a phenomenon which seems to center on issues of fatherhood; Zissou’s ambivalent feelings towards his own father figure are merely hinted at, but his failure to resolve them are evident in his self-indulgent life of adventure, in which he continually pursues the elusive, whether it be a mythic sea monster or an unattainable woman, while he proudly and flagrantly disregards authority- but simultaneously seeks approval from the establishment it represents.  His stunted emotional development is challenged by the arrival of another man-child, seeking his own validation from a father he never knew- a role Zissou is ill-prepared and unsuited for, but finds himself longing to fill.  Through their shared journey on and under the sea- with all its richly symbolic implications- they undergo a shared rite of passage to manhood, and in their belated transition to maturity they find the potential to transform their world of compromised hope and sold-out ideals back into the enlightened future promised by the bright dreams of the past.  Meanwhile, of course, the film’s few women wait, not always patiently, while the boys play at their adventure, hoping that the consequences of the game are not too dire, serving as mothers or lovers, or more accurately, both.

In presenting his male-centric delayed-coming-of-age tale, director Anderson utilizes all his now-familiar tricks of the trade: his meticulously tidy shot composition, his primary color palette (with an emphasis, this time, on yellow and blue), his visual influences drawn from a retro-hip nostalgic sensibility, his unapologetic use of obvious symbolism drawn from his own personal mythology, and, of course, his heavy use of vintage pop and folk music- here given a new twist by the inclusion of several Brazilian acoustic renditions of classic David Bowie tunes, most of them performed live onscreen by cast member Seu Jorge, adding to the film’s oddball blend of the exotic and the familiar.  Another Anderson trademark, his affinity for montage and whimsical graphic illustration for setting up key points, is here given a particularly spectacular expression through the use of a life-sized cross-section set to represent Zissou’s boat (named the Belafonte in yet another nod to Cousteau, whose own ship was famously called Calypso); this enormous visual aid allows the director to indulge his obsession for the methodical establishment of his characters’ world and the arrangement of their thematic place in the story.  For those scenes which take place off the boat, he chooses a variety of Mediterranean locations (beautifully captured by cinematographer Robert Yeoman) that evoke the flavor of the classic French and Italian cinema that has helped to shape his personal filmic style, but which also create a visual impression of old-time glamour and sophistication that- in many cases- has grown weathered and gone to seed.

Anderson’s ensemble, for the most part, is made up of the actors he had in mind when he and Baumbach wrote the screenplay, a fortunate- and uncommon- occurrence which bears testimony to the director’s popularity with his cast and crew.  Most important, of course, is the central presence of the aforementioned Murray, whose dry demeanor embodies and defines the movie’s overall tone; always a surprisingly rich and subtle player, he uses his familiar screen persona to portray Zissou as a man who is good-natured, well-intentioned, and generous of spirit- but also infuriatingly self-absorbed and remote.  These qualities are not static, however, and much of the joy that can be derived from The Life Aquatic comes from watching this perennially underappreciated actor navigate the complex changes undergone by the title character, embracing the demands of the moment with the refreshing gung-ho gusto that has always made him so likable, no matter how smarmy or pompous his role may require him to be.  It’s a good thing for the movie that he has the ability to remain endearing, for Steve Zissou could easily have come across as a fatuous, manipulative phony; thanks to Murray’s self-deprecatingly buffoonish personality, we can see the charisma that underlies the character’s less pleasant qualities and believe that he is a man who inspires the loyalty and admiration of his misfit crew.

As for the unlikely assortment of oddballs that comprise that crew- as well as the sundry other characters that populate The Life Aquatic– they are brought to varying degrees of life by a mix of familiar and not-so-familiar faces.  The most prominent is Wilson, who portrays the young newcomer who may or may not be Zissou’s son; with his earnest, gee-whiz manner and his genteel southern drawl, he provides both a contrast and a foil for the more flamboyant Murray, and suggests a child-like naïveté that reinforces the movie’s boyish-fantasy theme- though at times he comes off as too good to be true, or worse, seems simple-minded rather than simple.  Anjelica Huston and Cate Blanchett, as Zissou’s estranged wife and the ambivalent journalist, respectively, are effective in their roles but are ultimately a bit wasted in the long run; Jeff Goldblum brings his usual oily eccentricity to the role of Zissou’s shamelessly self-congratulatory rival, Michael Gambon offers well-mannered class as a mask for the hidden shadiness of Zissou’s producer, and Bud Cort (of Harold and Maude, a film that clearly ranks high in the Wes Anderson pantheon of influences) gives a disarmingly human turn as the “bond company stooge.”  As for Zissou’s crew members and interns, most of them are established as distinct “types” to flesh out the background, but unfortunately most of them remain there throughout the film without making much of an individual impression; the exceptions are the previously-mentioned Jorge, whose musical interludes are a frequent (and welcome) distraction, and Willem Dafoe, who plays Klaus, the German first mate whose petulant jealousy is aroused by the favoritism his beloved captain bestows on interloper Wilson.  His emotionalism stands out from the rest of the crew, who seem nonplused and disaffected by even the most dramatic developments, but occasionally the performance feels a bit gimmicky, as if the actor were essaying a role in a comedy sketch instead of a major character in a serious feature film.  This, in fact, sums up the most problematic element of The Life Aquatic; like all of Anderson’s work, many of the film’s situational conceits are pointedly absurd, and much of the dialogue is self-consciously glib, underplayed with a heightened detachment that gives the whole piece a somewhat artificial feel.  Most of the time, it’s a technique that works, but there are times in the film when it gives the impression we are being put-on, creating a disingenuous air that threatens to undermine the sincerity of Anderson’s ultimate message.  However, it is not the fault of Dafoe, or any of the other talented players, all of whom deliver on-the-money performances that are true to the style, that it sometimes feels like we are watching an elaborate and extended skit; rather, it is a sense that Anderson, in this particular outing, may have laid it on just a little too thick.

That said, however, I should be quick to point out that The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, though it may not be his best work, is a definitively Wes Anderson project, and as such, is full of more than enough delights to compensate for the occasional stylistic miscalculation.  Indeed, it has become apparent over his relatively short career that this young filmmaker is a true auteur, a visionary director with an distinct and powerful style which can, perhaps, be easily imitated or parodied but never quite duplicated; his growing body of work exhibits a rare wealth of imagination, coupled with a desire to explore his own foibles onscreen- foibles he happens to share with most of his generation, and that find a unique form of expression through his cinematic voice.  Coming at the mid-point of his career so far, and on the heels of his much-lauded The Royal Tennenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou perhaps represents a crystallization of his milieu, a vehicle with which he defined his personal style in the most assertive form to date.  If it sometimes seems a little too much, maybe that’s appropriate; after all, Anderson’s films are not meant to be realism- they portray a world of archetypal dream mythology, re-invented with a hipster-ish vocabulary, perhaps, but no less profound for the twist.  No matter that it sometimes feels like play-acting; indeed, in a film about boys who would rather go adventuring than grow up, that might even be the point.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0362270/