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Blu-ray Review: The Royal Tenenbaums – The Criterion Collection

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The Film

Wes Anderson hit a new aesthetic high point with The Royal Tenenbaums, a film that announced to the world the arrival of a master stylist. Rushmore had already shown Anderson to be a brilliant storyteller and character creator, but with Tenebaums, he moved on to a much larger canvas. The storybook production design is enchanting, with Anderson’s attention to compartmentalized detail creating a wholly immersive world. But character doesn’t get lost inside the impeccably designed frames — sure, the performances are mannered and the characters laden with quirks, but the humanity and heartbreak of each remains palpable.

The Royal TenenbaumsThe Royal Tenenbaums is a testament to director Anderson’s strenghth as an actor’s director. This isn’t a skill he gets a lot of credit for, although the incredible child performances in Moonrise Kingdom might change that. But it’s clear with every nuanced, layered turn, from the A-list movie stars on down to the kid who played neurosis-case Dudley, that Anderson evokes something special from his cast.

Gene Hackman, in the last great role he’s had, stars as Royal Tenenbaum, the erstwhile patriarch of an upper crust Manhattan family. Estranged from his wife, Etheline (Anjelica Huston), and three kids — Chas, Margot and Richie (Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Luke Wilson) — Royal decides to force his way back into their good graces by faking a cancer diagnosis and moving back in to the palatial family estate. The plan is met with varying degrees of resistance from the three adult Tenenbaum children, all promising youngsters who never lived up to their potential.

Nonetheless, Royal moves in, and his purported illness becomes a bit of an afterthought in the wake of the emotional tumult. Chas is still grieving the death of his wife from a few months back, the adopted Margot is afflicted with an intense feeling of ennui much to the chagrin of her doctor husband Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray) and Richie is pining away for Margot, who he’s loved ever since they were kids. Meanwhile, Etheline is being courted by kindly colleague Henry Sherman and childhood friend Eli Cash (Owen Wilson) is just generally causing a headache with his drug-fueled obnoxious behavior.

Not a single one of these characters is given short shrift (and one gets the sense even more minor characters like Seymour Cassel’s Dusty and Kumar Pallana’s Pagoda have a expansive inner life), and yet, The Royal Tenenbaums doesn’t even hit the two-hour mark. Just like he’s an expert in crafting evocative miniature worlds with his detailed sets, Anderson is brilliant at economical storytelling — brief visual strokes that communicate volumes. The Royal Tenenbaums is jam-packed with this kind of rich filmmaking, revealing more and more with each viewing.

The Blu-ray Disc

The Royal Tenenbaums is presented in 1080p high definition in its original 2.40:1 aspect ratio. Criterion’s high def transfer here easily bests the fuzzy, artifacted, problematic DVD transfer from a decade ago. These images are packed with fine detail, feature vibrant and evenly saturated colors and offer a pleasing, film-like look. Clarity and sharpness are fantastic throughout, and damage is absolutely nowhere to be found. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is flawless, keeping the dialogue in the fronts while nicely filling out the surrounds with some effects and the superb soundtrack.

Special Features

Other than a few Easter eggs, the Blu-ray features an exact port of the DVD’s fairly extensive special features. Anderson provides a commentary track, and further exploration of the production process is provided by the fly-on-the-wall behind-the-scenes doc directed by Albert Maysles. Almost 30 minutes is devoted to brief interview snippets with most of the main cast — Hackman, Huston, Stiller, Paltrow, Murray, Glover and both Wilsons — while a number of bit players are interviewed in a Charlie Rose parody called The Peter Bradley Show, featuring Larry Pine as the titular clueless interviewer.

Two brief deleted scenes are included, along with a scrapbook feature with set photos, prop photos and paintings from the film by Miguel Calderón, who also gets a brief audio piece on his work. Two trailers round out the disc. The package also includes a booklet with an essay by Kent Jones and an insert showing Eric Anderson’s detailed drawings of the Tenenbaum house.

The Bottom Line

The greatly improved A/V quality makes picking up the Blu-ray of this superb film a no-brainer.

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About Dusty Somers

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based editor and writer. He is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.