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Just might be Wes Anderson's best film yet. It's frantic and relentless, moving faster seemingly than one can blink. It is a part of the film's overall charming nature though, as is the quirky humor. The entire thing gives us a creative vibe that is infectious, and what makes this one perhaps stand out from the others is that somehow, in the midst of all of that off the wall creatively it still appear grounded in something earthly and human.
The story is a telling of an adventurous tale surrounding Zero (a lobby boy) who works for Gustave, the owner of the Grand Budapest Hotel (a famous European hotel). The story involves an art heist, but it is the backdrop of war that really centers the films sense of nostalgia and period piece.
The visuals move back and forth from vivid and stunning to intentionally ridiculous and over the top. And while the film remains insistent on maintaing its fervent speed, it is never out of control. Anderson has made another classic, and one that can be enjoyed (no doubt) again and again.
Winter's Tale is admittedly a difficult book to adapt to the screen. To work effectively it would need to take the chaotic movement and pacing and weave it in to a more coherent visual telling of the narrative. There are differences in how literature and film can communicate. The book has a bit more freedom to stray from the story itself for the benefit certain poetic embellishment and side street views. Given the ability of film to capture pages of film in a single on screen moment, to try and balance this sort of forward movement with a casual meandering simply distorts the scene rather than enhancing it. Goldsman has this issue in more than a few places during the 2 hour running time, and it hampers the end product.
There are a lot of elements to love in the book. Despite the disjointed feel of the film, there are moments that capture some of these elements well. It tells the story of a historical and mythological New York setting, Lake grows up in what we know as the Bay, removed from the social parameters of the big city and the social identity that comes with it. The story follows this mysterious man as he moves from this rustic setting in to the greater world, a move that finds him face to face with questions of moral and ethical purpose. The film uses this journey to explore Lake's forming understanding of justice in a world where the complications of love and responsibility come in to play.
There is a spiritual and mystical reality that permeates the story on the surface (the historical New York). In the book this comes out in the mysterious fog that blankets the city, the symbol of the white horse, the fusion of a supernatural understory to the character of Lake and the central villain. The film is actually able to visualize these pieces in a way that the book did not. It stays a little more focused on Lake (Ferrell) and his developing relationship with Jessica Brown-Findlay, along with the villianness turn of Crowe), whereas the book took us through multiple characters and lost sight of these three as the central focus. The film uses the otherworldly philosophy (that explores a sort of struggle between determinism and fatalism in a philosophy of life) that miracles are possible even when we do not see them. It is about finding hope in the darkness, mystery in what feels all too certain. It is about not being bound to who we feel we must be in the eyes of the world, and remaining open to the possibilities that love and responsibility can bring to our understanding of others and the "other". Thankfully the director understands that the film can explore these things in a way that is more intentional and demonstrative than the written word. It sees New York as a fusion of future/past, a certain reality that is surrounded by an uncertain mist and fog. And the film manages to be as poetic visually as the book was with words. At the very least these parts were memorable.
The characters though seemed (to me) to remain out of reach, although for a different reason than in the book. They failed to rise above the symbolic visions. It failed to really focus in on the moments that mattered (such as the relationship with Lake and the horse, and his ongoing struggle to wrestle through his misguided sense of promiscuity in the face of what he begins to experience as a "love" for an "other"). And that is unfortunate. The book really desired to read as a literary classic. The film was not as concerned with this, and this at least keeps it grounded as an "okay" film. But it could have reached for more than it did, and in many ways the story is good enough to deserve it.
I originally had this animated film rated at 3 and a half stars. I recognized the ingenuity and creativity of the film demands a repeated viewing to fully appreciated how smart the film really is. it flies fast and furious, and much of the detail and wit is easy to miss. But to that end it is also easy to enjoy, which speaks to the overall success of the film.
What is perhaps most exciting about the film is thematic development. In fact, much of the brilliance of the writing is the way in which it tells this story about an individual, who is less than extraordinary, who gets pulled in to a plan to save the world. Without giving away the ending, we are finally let in on the nature of the storytelling in a way that allows us to create context where we might not expect it. It is one thing to connect to a lego character who is struggling to understand what it means to be an extraordinary and special person in a world that has become completely ordinary and planned. It is quite another to feel this as a raw human emotion.
The other brilliant part of this story is the way that it provides a commentary on the nature of how lego is marketed. It is quite humorous to see the plot providing a sort of nostalgic longing for the days when lego was a free thinking exercise in which you could create your own rules and ideas. It has grown in to a product that now comes in premeditated packages and instructions. In the film the world is being saved from an evil leader who has defined the world in to dimensions that must all cater to his own idea of how things must be built. The mysterious "craggle" is the thing that is going to effectively freeze the world in to his idea of what it should look like, and thus stifle any opportunity for freedom and creativity. This is what must be stopped with the "special piece".
The more you watch the film the more you realize just how fun and witty and smart it is. On the surface it meanders through typical animated fare and laugh out loud moments. It is entertaining, but one is not convinced it is going to be completely memorable. But underneath it manages to be so much more than what it is on the surface, and in the end it manages to be memorable in a good way.