Why are Wes Anderson Films So Captivating?

Suzy Bishop (played by Kara Hayward) in Moonrise Kingdom. Image from IMDB.

Sometimes when we look at a painting, we immediately recognize the artist without even needing to confirm. For example, when we look at a painting and see bright colors, bold and dramatic brush strokes, and something or someplace mundane turned into something of vibrant beauty—most would probably recognize it as a Van Gogh piece. This not only occurs with paintings but with all artistic mediums, especially film. Watching only a few minutes of a movie, it might be quite easy to guess who the director is by the film’s overall vibe. One popular director that comes to mind that is easily recognizable by their unique filmmaking style is Wes Anderson.

Anderson is a well-known American Filmmaker and a fellow Houstonian. He received his Bachelor of Arts with a major in Philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin. It was there he met now-famous actor Owen Wilson. Together they struck up a friendship and went on to work together on Anderson’s first short film shown at the Sundance Film Festival called Bottle Rocket (1994). The short film, starring Owen Wilson and his brother Luke Wilson, was well received. Due to its success, Anderson decided to turn Bottle Rocket (1996) into a feature-length film, however, the feature did not have the same success as the short. Despite that minor setback, Anderson went on to find success with many other movies such as The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), Moonrise Kingdom (2012), The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), Isle of Dogs (2018), and most recently The French Dispatch (2021). With all of these under his belt, Anderson made his mark in the film industry. But what was it about these films that made them so captivating?

The Royal Tenenbaums. Image from IMDB.
The Royal Tenenbaums. Image from IMDB.

 
Camp Ivanhoe from Moonrise Kingdom. Credits to IMDB.
Camp Ivanhoe from Moonrise Kingdom. Credits to IMDB.
Breakfast scene at Camp Ivanhoe from Moonrise Kingdom. IMDB.

Anderson’s films focus on aesthetics, yet they tell “an affecting, relatable, human story.” To fully understand the reasoning behind Anderson’s allure, we must understand his visual and narrative style, and to effectively showcase this, I’ll use one of my personal favorites as an example—Moonrise Kingdom (2012). Moonrise Kingdom is a coming-of-age film that follows two 12-year-old kids, Suzy Bishop and Sam Shakusky, who decide to run away from their troubled lives, seeking refuge in each other. Suzy runs to escape her family and the growing tension between her parents, while Sam runs from his Khaki Scout Troop at Camp Ivanhoe. The duo race against the other Khaki scouts, parents, and the police who seek to bring them back home.

One component in many of Anderson’s films, especially Moonrise Kingdom, is his perfectly centered shots throughout the movie. There are numerous scenes in Moonrise Kingdom where this can be seen, where you can place an imaginary line right down the middle of the screen and you’d see that one side mimics the other. One example in the film would be the meadow scene when Suzy and Sam meet. On the far left side stands Suzy, and Sam stands on the far right. Directly in the center, between the two kids, is a windmill which is used as a focal point. According to cinematographer Robert Yeoman, creating this effect required him to literally measure the distance out to create a perfectly symmetrical shot.

Another example of symmetry in Anderson’s films would be the way he places two scenes together. For example, in Moonrise Kingdom there is a scene between Bruce Willis’s character, Captain Sharp, and Sam’s foster parents where they are in the middle of a phone call. Although in completely different spaces, the film depicts the characters within the same shot. The shot is split down the middle, and the characters mimic each other in the way they are seated with one of their legs stretched out. Not only are centered scenes such as this pleasing to the eye, but they create a sense of balance and harmony.

The Grand Budapest Hotel. IMDB.
The Grand Budapest Hotel. IMDB.
The French Dispatch. IMDB.
The French Dispatch. IMDB.
 

Anderson also uses specific techniques in order for his films to appear like they are photographs. Planimetric composition is a technique used to make scenes appear two-dimensional to help create a tableau vivant, also known as “living pictures,” and Anderson expertly incorporates this into his works.. This can be particularly seen in Moonrise Kingdom while at Camp Ivanhoe when the khaki scouts are having breakfast. This scene alludes to Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper.

Another key component of a Wes Anderson film is his chosen color palette in each of his movies. The chosen color schemes “unite each scene while also setting the tone for the story.” In Moonrise Kingdom the film was set in 1965, therefore Anderson uses colors such as yellow, red, or orange to fit with the nostalgic tone often associated with the era. Warm colors like these “evoke feelings of happiness, optimism, energy, and passion.” These emotions are often associated with what it’s like to be a child. At the same time, by choosing color schemes for a particular movie, “ he creates a world far removed from reality,” just like his fictional island off the coast of New England in Moonrise Kingdom.

Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) from Moonrise Kingdom. Image from IMDB.
Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) from Moonrise Kingdom. Image from IMDB.
Screengrab from Moonrise Kingdom.
Screengrab from Moonrise Kingdom.

Wes Anderson also makes use of long takes to follow the characters in the film. They are not necessarily a one-shot take, but a continuous shot that is shown from different angles to add a “deep sense of continuity and connection between characters.” In Moonrise Kingdom, the film starts by following Suzy and her family in different parts of their home. During this sequence, Anderson builds the framework behind Suzy’s motive to run away as we catch a glimpse of their family dynamic.

The most important element that adds to Anderson’s charm is the common theme of a misfit attempting to either fit in or find their place in the world—a struggle that an insurmountable amount of people can relate to. In Moonrise Kingdom, Suzy Bishop and Sam Shakusky are both outsiders in their circles. Suzy was the “black sheep” of her family, misunderstood by her own parents. Sam tragically lost both his parents and was living in a foster home. He was misunderstood by his Khaki Scout Troop and without knowing his story, they took his reserved behavior as strange and standoffish, therefore, they chastised and excluded him. Together, Suzy and Sam found solace in one another.

Meadow scene from Moonrise Kingdom. IMDB.
Meadow scene from Moonrise Kingdom. IMDB.

 

It’s evident that Wes Anderson has made quite an impact on film and pop culture. Anderson holds some of the most iconic films in the industry and has worked with some of the best talent that the industry has to offer. His impact has generated so much notoriety that social media has recently started a trend where everyone is filming themselves doing normal things like shopping, having dinner with family, traveling, etc. while mimicking Anderson’s signature-centered shots, color palette, and symmetry.


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