In The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, director Wes Anderson takes his familiar stable of actors on a field trip to a fantasy aquarium, complete with stop-motion, candy-striped crabs and rainbow seahorses. And though Anderson does expand his horizons in terms of retro-special effects and a whimsical use of color, fans will otherwise find themselves in well-charted waters. As The Life Aquatic opens, Zissou (Bill Murray), a self-involved, Jacques Cousteau-like filmmaker, has just released a documentary depicting the death of his best friend Esteban, who was eaten by some sort of sea creature--possibly a jaguar shark. Zissou's troubles also include his waning popularity with the public, and a nemesis (Jeff Goldblum) who hogs up all the grant money. Hope arrives in the form of Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), an amiable Kentuckian who may be Zissou's son. Despite his lack of enthusiasm for fatherhood, Zissou welcomes Ned--and Ned in turn saves Zissou's new documentary (in which he seeks revenge on the jaguar shark) in more ways than one.
One of Wes Anderson's greatest achievements as a director to date has been launching the autumnal melancholy phase of Bill Murray's career, starting with Rushmore in 1998, and Murray delivers a similarly comedic yet low-key performance here. Unfortunately, Zissou is one of the few characters in this ensemble to achieve multi-dimensionality. Even co-star Wilson doesn't get to develop Ned much beyond Noble Southerner, and he ends up seeming more like a prop for illustrating Zissou's emotional development rather than his own man. The Life Aquatic probably won't be remembered as a great film, but it is still one that no Anderson (or Murray) fan can afford to miss.--Leah Weathersby