There comes a time with artists, especially once their career hits that second decade, where they have honed their craft to such an extent that their calling cards have become full-blown traits and tendencies. They themselves become a style; their own genre right alongside comedy or drama or French new wave. With Wes Anderson, the filmmaker himself is very much a style and he has been for some time.
Wes Anderson makes Wes Anderson movies and Wes Anderson movies only look like Wes Anderson movies.
But it had to start somewhere for Wes Anderson. While he’s definitely fined tune this genre of his over the years, what’s pretty amazing is that so much of what now makes up the Wes Andersonish quality of his films was there in his very first film, 1996’s Bottle Rocket. While mostly ignored when it was first released, the film has gone on to become a cult favorite. It’ll never top a list of the best Anderson movies (that spot is reserved for The Royal Tennenbaums, Rushmore, or Moonrise Kingdom depending on who you ask,) but it might be the most influential, especially when viewed through the prism of Wes Anderson being his own genre.
At its core, Bottle Rocket is ultimately about friendship, specifically the kind of long-lasting, deep-rooted friendship that becomes a partnership anchored by loyalty, trust, and patience. If you start pulling apart the creative fabric of the film though, some of those hallmarks of what we now know as Wes Anderson’s style start to emerge.
There is low-stakes criminal activity and a wild card character in need of saving. It features an adorable love story and a road trip that takes detours towards moments of self-discovery and reflection not to mention tomfoolery, monkey business, and a litany of shenanigans. From a stylistic standpoint, there’s a distinctive color pallet in Bottle Rocket that shifts between acts, picturesque and delicious story-telling that vacillates from feeling like it is pulled from a high brow children’s book and something that was written a century ago in a country you’ve likely never heard of and fantastical dialogue that typically shies away from brevity and somehow feels both choppy and stilted and smoothly lyrical at the same time.
Bottle Rocket also includes character archetypes that would become commonplace in Anderson films, such as the hopeless dreamer, the despondent rich kid, the verbally abusive older brother, and the small-time crime boss among others. The character of Dignan is especially noteworthy, mainly for his unwavering dedication to a seemingly lost cause, in this case, his desire to lead a life of crime. It’s a character trait that would find itself belonging to several characters that show up in a number of Anderson’s films.
And it wouldn’t be a Wes Anderson movie without some truly top-notch character names. In the case of Bottle Rocket, there aren’t as many as there would be in future Anderson movies, but that’s due in large part to the relatively small cast. Even still, there are characters with names like Future Man, Applejack, Bob Maplethorpe, Dignan, and Mr. Henry.
Applejack especially, chef’s kiss.
When exploring Anderson’s work, there are elements of Bottle Rocket’s DNA in each of his subsequent films. Some films may only share one or two traits with Bottle Rocket, while others are more closely related. With Bottle Rocket celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, it felt like a good time to think about Anderson’s catalog in terms of how Bottle Rocket influenced it and highlight the ways in which the film’s creativity has lived on through the rest of Anderson’s movies.
In the absence of title cards (another hallmark of Wes Anderson films,) I threw together some headings to help designate the notable aspects of Bottle Rocket that would continue to emerge throughout Anderson’s films. Under each heading are the films that fall into that respective category. And while I’d like to have figured out a way to have some music playing here, I did find this playlist of music inspired by Anderson’s films that works. Musical accompaniment is up to you, I’m afraid. My sincerest apologies.
The Ones Featuring A Heist (Or Something Moderately Criminal)
The Royal Tennenbaums, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Grand Budapest Hotel
2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox most closely aligns with Bottle Rocket here as it features a main character, Mr. Fox, drawn back into a life of crime, although for mostly altruistic reasons. The film, like Bottle Rocket, also features more than one criminal act. A criminal act involving produce, but a criminal act nonetheless.
With The Royal Tennenbaums, I’m not educated enough in the ways of the law to know if faking a terminal illness to gain sympathy from your estranged family is a crime but it definitely feels like a crime. At the very least, it’s super shady. And with The Grand Budapest Hotel, a character pushed another character off a cliff. Reasons aside, we would definitely consider that to be moderately criminal at least.
The Ones With Characters Who Are Staunchly Dedicated To Delightfully Odd Pursuits
Rushmore, The Royal Tennenbaums. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Moonrise Kingdom
In Bottle Rocket, Dignan’s desire to lead a crime is almost admirable when you consider how much thought he had put into it. He had a plan that stretched into decades scratched out in a spiral-bound notebook. That’s dedication. Misguided and slightly troubling dedication, but dedication regardless. And it was a kind of dedication that would show up again in Anderson’s second film, Rushmore, whose main character Max was slavishly devoted to his school and the overall betterment of his beloved institution. Max’s devotion didn’t land him in jail like Dignan’s did, but it did cost him his enrollment at Rushmore, a fate almost worst for him than imprisonment.
Chas (Ben Stiller’s character in Rushmore) leads a life almost entirely dictated by his need to ensure his sons are safe, regardless of the cost or toll it takes on his own well-being. I know, that’s not an odd pursuit. But the matching red suits Chas and his sons wear are kind of odd, so it counts. The same goes for Edward Norton’s character in Moonrise Kingdom. Wanting to be the absolute best scoutmaster in the land is fine, but you know, he takes it to a few notches north of being extreme.
In The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Zissou, an explorer, becomes obsessed with tracking down the shark that killed his friend and will do whatever it takes to catch the bastard all in the name of documentary filmmaking.
The Ones That Includes Adventures on the Road
The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, The Darjeeling Limited, Moonrise Kingdom, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Isle of Dogs
Wes Anderson has a fondness for taking his characters on the road, whether it’s to escape a hitman hired by your deceased lover’s family in The Grand Budapest Hotel, rescue your dog after the government has banned them (Isle of Dogs), or embark on a spiritual journey with your estranged brothers following the death of your father (The Darjeeling Limited.) Whatever the reason, Anderson has no problems with finding a way to make his stories hit the road.
Or the sea, as is the case in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, or paths through the woods and grassy fields which Sam and Susy traverse in search of a place to call their own. Anderson finds a nostalgic-tinged romanticism in the travels embarked upon by his characters, making the idea of setting out on some sort of adventure feel free of danger or pitfalls and instead, full of whimsical open-endedness and endless possibilities. They’re the kind of travels you’d take in a dream, not so much in real life.
Well, unless there was a hitman coming after you. All bets are off then.
The Ones Where There Is Some Sort of Rescue Mission
The Royal Tennenbaums, Moonrise Kingdom, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Isle of Dogs
In some instances, the rescue missions in an Anderson film were closely connected with the aforementioned adventures on the road, most notably in Moonrise Kingdom. In the 2012 film, an entire scout troop, local law enforcement, and (gasp) Child Services all feel the need to embark on their own version of a rescue mission. In Isle of Dogs, the rescue mission is the road adventure and in The Grand Budapest Hotel, the rescue mission is of the utmost importance as it’s needed to clear Ralph Fiennes’ character’s name.
Yet in The Royal Tennenbaums, the rescue mission is different. For starters, there are a few different rescue missions and on top of that, it’s a matter of rescuing people from their own self-destructive behavior. Royal is trying to rescue his children and grandchildren from misery and depression, Richie wants to rescue Eli from his wild drug addiction, Raleigh wants to rescue Margot from herself and Chas wants to rescue his sons from an accident that hasn’t happened yet but could happen at any given moment.
It should be noted that the rescue mission in Bottle Rocket was Dignan breaking Anthony out of the rehab facility in Arizona and he was there voluntarily so it wasn’t needed.
But hey, Anthony is a good friend and that’s what good friends do. Or at least some do. I’m not sure mine would, but that’s for another time.
The Ones That Have An Adorable Love Story
Rushmore, The Royal Tennenbaums, Moonrise Kingdom, The Grand Budapest Hotel
The romantic qualities in Anderson’s films aren’t exclusive to the road-weary adventures nor are they saved for the general easy-gazing at a life that has long since passed. Sometimes the romance is just that, romance. And the parties involved are more often than not, lost souls in need of companionship.
Plus, they’re usually super adorable.
Whereas it all started with Anthony’s language-challenged courtship of the housekeeper Inez in Bottle Rocket, it continued on with Herman’s secret and then not-so-secret relationship with Rosemary, the unfortunate object of Max’s affection in Rushmore, and then Henry’s proposal to Etheline in The Royal Tennenbaums.
Anderson then took a break from the cozy coupling before returning to it full-bore in Moonrise Kingdom, which depicted the kind of summer love we all pined for in our earlier years. The relationship in The Grand Budapest Hotel took some time to get too but it could eventually be found in Zero and Agatha’s, which was adorable before eventually tragic with her dying in childbirth.
But BEFORE THAT, super adorable. So adorable.
The Ones That Feature A Wild Card In Need Of Saving
The Royal Tenennbaums
Wes Anderson’s first wildcard was our boy Dignan and yes, Dignam needed some saving. And I think Anthony knew that, which is why he continued to go along with his schemes and plans. Anthony never seemed all that open to a life of crime, but he knew it was Dignan’s dream and that was enough for him.
That and jumpsuits of course.
Owen Wilson would also play a wild card who needed help in The Royal Tennenbaums when he played the drug-addled writer Eli Cash. Like a lot of us when watching a Wes Anderson movie, Eli was really enamored with language.
I guess I should have called him a wild cat instead of a wild card, huh?
Nope, never mind. I’m sorry about that. I couldn’t help it.
There would be wild cards in almost all of Wes Anderson’s films, although none of them garnered our sympathy in the same way Dignan or Eli did.
At some point, Anderson’s next movie, The French Dispatch, is going to come out. Who knows when that will actually happen but what we do know is that somewhere deep within the creative tissue of the film, there will be traces of Bottle Rocket. There might be a wild card, a love story, a rescue mission, or a heist. Only time will tell. But rest assure Bottle Rocket will be there in some form or another.