A Jacques Cousteau quote, handwritten in a library book (Diving for Sunken Treasure), leads Max Fischer to Miss Cross in Wes Anderson’s Rushmore. (When Max first sees her, she’s reading from another seaworthy adventure, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped.) Anderson’s films usually glisten with details that hint, iceberg-like, at concealed depths, so it’s odd that his latest, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, literally takes to the sea yet feels a bit shallow by comparison. The impressive cutaway set of the Belafonte might be a revealing metaphor for the curiously landlocked atmosphere: His lavish artifice, usually so pleasurable, dissolves when the governing element is water.
The fluidly animated but too glossy sea creatures clash with TLA‘s visual tone, but suggest this season’s more satisfying undersea vehicle for whimsy, invention, even male bonding: The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie. Bikini Bottom and environs strike the right hermetic note, with weird color chords, foods, folkways. As in Anderson’s films, uniforms are important—SpongeBob’s self-referencing trousers, Patrick’s tighty-greenies. And when the mediums mix—there are interludes of dry-land live action—the results range from daftly meta (the whole movie is being watched by pirates) to kind of terrifying (the workshop of the “Cyclops,” taxidermist of the life aquatic, exudes death simply by its absence of water). If TLA sketches out some of the perils of manhood—Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) and long-lost son (Owen Wilson) find, punch, and lose each other—SpongeBob delves at least as deep, as sponge and starfish learn what it might mean to be, well, slightly more mature sponge and starfish.
Next week: I explain why I prefer Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow to The Aviator.