The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (15)

Hold tight, it's one hell of a ride
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The Independent Culture

There's a great children's underwater adventure out now, and I don't mean The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie. Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou may be aimed at an adult audience, but it's very much the product of an overgrown boy's imagination, with its explorer hero, pirate island escapade and exotic array of imaginary marine fauna. The Life Aquatic does more than any other recent film to create the sense of child-like wonder that used to be invoked ad nauseam with reference to Steven Spielberg; that Anderson's film-making is wry, arch and knowing only heightens its singular innocence.

There's a great children's underwater adventure out now, and I don't mean The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie. Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou may be aimed at an adult audience, but it's very much the product of an overgrown boy's imagination, with its explorer hero, pirate island escapade and exotic array of imaginary marine fauna. The Life Aquatic does more than any other recent film to create the sense of child-like wonder that used to be invoked ad nauseam with reference to Steven Spielberg; that Anderson's film-making is wry, arch and knowing only heightens its singular innocence.

At one point, Cate Blanchett, as British reporter Jane Winslett-Richardson, tells explorer-director Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) exactly what she thinks of his latest film: "Aspects of it seemed slightly fake." Anderson - whose last film was the elegantly screwball family saga The Royal Tenenbaums - is defying us to dismiss The Life Aquatic as fakery. Indeed, many critics in the US have complained that he has gone overboard here in elaborating his hermetic comic-strip universe. If you can't embrace Anderson's exuberantly perfectionist artificiality, The Life Aquatic will taste like seaweed in your mouth; but if you enjoy the idea of a film in which nothing is real but everything springs from an overheated imagination, then The Life Aquatic is certain to tickle your flippers.

The film is ostensibly a tribute to legendary screen salt Jacques Cousteau, fictionally reincarnated as Bill Murray's Steve Zissou, who has long thrilled fans with his filmed tales of watery derring-do. Now, however, Zissou is in a trough, having lost his best friend to a fearsome undersea creature he dubs the Jaguar Shark. Depressed, past his prime and determined, Ahab-like, to hunt down the creature for revenge, Zissou is running out of funding and in danger of alienating his wife Eleanor (Anjelica Huston). Then an Air Kentucky pilot, Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), turns up to announce that he might be Zissou's long-lost son. Zissou eagerly welcomes him, needing affection - but also needing Ned to give his next film "a relationship sub-plot. There's chemistry between us."

As this suggests, The Life Aquatic is enormously self-reflexive. It not only contains pastiche chunks of Zissou's own series The Life Aquatic, but also seems to act out Anderson's own film-making anxieties. "I'm right on the edge. I don't know what comes next," Zissou laments, giving voice to Anderson's musing on storytelling and the nervous thrill of making it up as you go along. Hence the film's freewheeling, seemingly unstructured sense of events and sudden shifts of tone: after long stretches tuned to the balmy doldrums of Zissou's depression and Murray's hangdog delivery, the film erupts into parodic wham-bam action, as Zissou takes on a crew of Filipino pirates to the sound of Iggy Pop's "Search and Destroy".

This picaresque ramble is offset by the film's obsessively controlled, massively mounted stylisation. Anderson largely shot at Rome's Cinecittá studios - Fellini's old stamping ground - and his centrepiece is a huge set representing a cross-section of Zissou's ship the Belafonte (after Cousteau's Calypso), with its own laboratories, library, jacuzzi and (of course) film editing room.

If The Royal Tenenbaums suggested that Anderson was an urbane New York cartoonist who happened to work in celluloid, The Life Aquatic (co-written with Noah Baumbach) reveals him as a consummate comic-book artist of the hyper-refined French school, crafting an elaborate bande dessinée in which virtually every frame is an objet d'art. Cultivating artifice like no film-maker since Peter Greenaway, Anderson and designer Mark Friedberg cram the film's symmetrical compositions with detail: Team Zissou logos everywhere, countless antiquated furnishings, signature colour touches like the yellow laces on the Zissou souvenir Adidas trainers, matching the yellow episode headings in Anderson's favourite sans-serif font. Cameraman Robert Yeoman orchestrates extraordinary colour schemes - fluorescent blues, fields of caramel brown - revolving round the boiled-sweet red of the ludicrous yet oddly noble Team Zissou knitted caps.

Some images are poignantly lovely, all the more so for their absurdity - for example, Huston mournfully puffing on a cheroot, framed by an underwater porthole. Animator Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas) uses old-fashioned stop-motion techniques to populate the film with rainbow-striped seahorses, dancing crabs and other fanciful creatures, which stem any influx of solemnity: in the middle of a crestfallen monologue, Zissou pauses to flick a little yellow lizard off his hand.

Even the humans resemble puppet people, live Thunderbirds figures: among them, anxious, bony Willem Dafoe, goggle-eyed Jeff Goldblum, Bud Cort's potato-head straight out of a Hanna-Barbera cartoon. Even so, there's real characterisation: Blanchett as a careworn mother-to-be, a loftily detached Huston, and Owen Wilson, with his subtle, comic Southern politeness.

The film is as self-contained as a snowglobe, and you either accept or reject that, along with such trademark jokes as singer Seu Jorge's interpolated Brazilianisations of David Bowie songs. There may not be moments of emotional grace as in The Royal Tenenbaums, yet there turns out to be a real cathartic charge to the culminating submarine trip. Orson Welles said a film studio was the best train-set a boy could have, but The Life Aquatic is something else: Anderson uses the sound stages of Cinecittá like a kid playing with toy boats in the bath. He makes one hell of a splash.

j.romney@independent.co.uk

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