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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 8/16/02

The Royal Tenenbaums
2001 (2002) - Touchstone Pictures (Criterion)

review by Adam Jahnke of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVsEncoded with DTS & Dolby Digital 5.1 Digital Surround

The Royal Tenenbaums (outside slipcase art)
(outside slipcase artwork)

The Royal Tenenbaums (inside keepcase art)
(inside keepcase artwork)
Film Rating: A

Disc Ratings (Video/Extras): A/A-

Audio Ratings (DD/DTS): A-/A-

Specs and Features

Disc One: The Film
110 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (2.40:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at ???), Amaray dual-disc keep case packaging in slipcase, audio commentary with director Wes Anderson, insert with liner notes by film critic Kent Jones, insert with floor plan of the Tenenbaum house illustrated by Eric Anderson, film-themed menu screens with music, scene access (12 chapters), languages: English (DD & DTS 5.1 and DD 2.0), subtitles: English, Closed Captioned

Disc Two: Supplemental Materials
NR, full frame and letterboxed widescreen (2.40:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, dual-layered (no layer switch), With the Filmmaker: A Portrait by Albert Maysles documentary, still gallery by set photographer James Hamilton, gallery of paintings by Miguel Calderón, Studio 360/Public Radio International segment on Miguel Calderón, gallery of Eric Chase Anderson's portraits of Margot Tenenbaum, storyboards by Wes Anderson, gallery of murals from Richie Tenenbaum's room by Eric Chase Anderson, gallery of book and magazine covers, The Peter Bradley Show, video interviews (with cast members Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Luke Wilson, Owen Wilson, Bill Murray and Danny Glover), 2 deleted scenes, 2 theatrical trailers, Easter eggs, film-themed menu screens with music, languages: English (DD 1.0 mono and 2.0 Surround), subtitles: none

I first heard the name Wes Anderson on the MTV Movie Awards, of all places. It was 1996 and Anderson was receiving the Best New Filmmaker award for something called Bottle Rocket. I was immediately suspicious of this guy and the movie. Most people who know me would agree that I am probably more cinematically aware than most folks. But I had never heard of Bottle Rocket. It seemed extremely unlikely that somebody could get a Best New Filmmaker trophy, especially a high-profile pseudo-award like the MTV Movie Awards, for a movie that had passed completely beneath my radar. I'm not saying I see every single movie that gets nominated for an award, but at least I've heard of all the movies that get nominated.

Cut to a few years later. I still haven't seen Bottle Rocket, but now Wes Anderson has a new movie out: Rushmore. It's kind of hard to be a movie nerd and not hear about Rushmore. The critics went into overdrive on this one, proclaiming it to be one of the most original and brightest comedies in years with a performance by Bill Murray that would change his career forever. So I go to see Rushmore and think it's just OK. Murray's great, no argument there and it's a charming enough little movie, but the way it and Wes Anderson had been built up, I expected something much, much better.

I include this rambling background to set up the idea that I did not exactly go into The Royal Tenenbaums expecting to be blown away. Even so, by the end of the opening sequence, that introduces the sprawling ensemble of characters, I was totally charmed and captivated by the story Anderson and longtime writing partner Owen Wilson had concocted and the world the filmmakers had created. With this movie, I finally discovered the originality and wit I'd heard so much about.

The Tenenbaums are a family of eccentric geniuses. Eldest son Chas (Ben Stiller) is a budding tycoon still suffering from the death of his wife. Adopted daughter Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) was a renowned playwright but hasn't written a word in years. Younger son Richie (Luke Wilson) was a tennis pro until his career was curtailed by a very public meltdown. All of them have lived their extraordinary lives in the shadow of patriarch Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman). Flat broke and with nowhere to go, Royal tries to win back the family he's been separated from for years by claiming he has just six weeks to live. The timing for such a scheme couldn't be worse. Royal's wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston) has just received a marriage proposal from her accountant Henry Sherman (Danny Glover) and Margot's marriage to cultural anthropologist Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray) has hit the skids, thanks in large part to her affair with Richie's friend, neighbor and Tenenbaum-wannabe Eli Cash (Owen Wilson). And those are just the main characters.

There are plenty of movies, including some that I'm very passionate about, with terrific individual elements. Things like a great performance, amazing cinematography or a moving musical score. But I've always found that the best movies are those in which every single piece of the puzzle gels to create a seamless organic whole. The Royal Tenenbaums is one of those movies. Start with that amazing ensemble cast led by Gene Hackman, who can comfortably add Royal Tenenbaum to his list of indelible screen characters like The French Connection's Popeye Doyle and Harry Caul from The Conversation. Hackman is never less than interesting on screen and this movie gives him a chance to flex his comedy muscles (often underused by directors, but no surprise to anybody who remembers Superman or his unforgettable cameo in Young Frankenstein). It's a brilliant performance, unfairly snubbed by the Academy Awards. And speaking of Oscar oversights, how is it possible that production designer David Wasco and costume designer Karen Patch were ignored for this movie? The Tenenbaum house on Archer Avenue is as much a character in the story as anyone, bursting with so many details that a dozen viewings of the film couldn't catch them all. And the look of the characters is utterly bizarre but seems perfectly natural in this context. All you have to do is look at these people to get a sense of their lives. Of course, all of these aspects are in service to a rich, layered screenplay by Anderson and Owen Wilson (he's the blond Wilson). Anderson has said that he wanted the movie to feel like it was based on a book that never existed and he fully succeeds. The chapter headings, the frequent use of flashbacks (some of which last just a couple of seconds) and the unobtrusive narration by Alec Baldwin all help make this feel novelistic in the best sense of the term.

This literary feel is only heightened by the terrific new two-disc set from The Criterion Collection. The movie comes packaged in a dual-disc Amaray keep case in a handsome (and, I might add, surprisingly sturdy) cardboard slipcase designed to look like an old, dog-eared book. This, by the way, explains why you've been seeing different cover art for the release all over the web. There actually are two different covers (both of which are pictured above). While I'm on the subject of packaging, I should mention the two inserts provided. The first will be familiar to anyone who's ever purchased a Criterion release before. This features a lengthy essay on the film (this one by Film Comment editor Kent Jones) as well as film and disc credits. The second insert is an amazingly detailed floor plan of the Tenenbaum house illustrated by Anderson's brother Eric. The idea behind this was to guide the production designer but, as Wes Anderson explains in his own liner notes, Eric's drawings were so meticulous that they weren't finished until after most of the work was already done. This insert is a very nice addition to the set.

Oh yeah, there's a couple of DVD's included in here, too. The movie is on Disc One and it looks simply amazing. Presented in the ultra-widescreen format of 2.40:1, and enhanced for your 16x9 pleasure, this is a gorgeous transfer with virtually no flaws. Colors are warm and vibrant but never over saturated. Even shots like Ben Stiller in his bright red tracksuit standing in a deep red hallway are handled extremely well. The image is never overly sharp, nor does it dissolve into a soft sea of grain. It's a perfect balance, conveying the texture of the film. The audio is presented in Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1, as well as a 2.0 Dolby Surround track. Since this is a dialogue-driven film, most of the action is front-centered and the surrounds are not too active. However, they certainly come into play with the film's music, and this is one of the best soundtracks of non-original music I've heard in quite some time. I detected very little difference between DTS and Dolby Digital on this one. Both tracks are subdued but natural and perfectly in keeping with the spirit of the film.

The only extra on the first disc is a commentary by Wes Anderson that I found extremely interesting. Anderson is amusingly self-deprecating at times and discusses a wide range of topics, including the music, some of the details in the design work, and his eclectic array of influences... some obvious (Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons is a clear touchstone for this movie), some considerably less so (an episode of The Rockford Files). The other supplements are all on Disc Two and an impressive batch they are. With the Filmmaker is an intimate peek behind-the-scenes at Anderson's creative process, co-directed by the great Albert Maysles. No offense to DVD producers like Laurent Bourzeau or J.M. Kenny, but you can't beat having a making-of piece done by one of the guys who made the brilliant documentaries Gimme Shelter and Salesman. My only complaint with this piece is that at approximately 30 minutes, it's far too brief. A nice counterpart to this feature is a series of video interviews with the cast. These are all good and cutting the interviews together with behind-the-scenes footage beats the talking-head syndrome of such interviews. Rounding out the interviews is The Peter Bradley Show. Sharp-eyed viewers will realize that The Peter Bradley Show is the program Eli Cash walks off of in the movie. Bradley is a dim-witted Charlie Rose type well played by Larry Pine. And on Disc Two, Bradley interviews five cast members, all longtime friends of Wes Anderson. You're not really going to learn anything substantial about the movie here, but it is awfully funny.

Perhaps the highlight of Disc Two is the extensive set of still galleries featuring artwork, book covers and storyboards. It's odd to call a still gallery a highlight, but there is simply so much art in this movie, much of it barely glimpsed, that it's a pleasure to be able to linger over it in detail. The large gallery of still photos by set photographer James Hamilton is a step above the usual collection of posed publicity shots. These are all behind-the-scenes pictures and they're very well done. Wrapping the whole thing up are a pair of theatrical trailers and a pair of cut scenes. On both of these features, the two simply play one right after another, which is slightly frustrating but hardly what I'd consider a deal-breaker. Oh yes... there's also several Easter eggs on the second disc, at least four of 'em. They're quick, cute and pretty easy to find, so I won't spoil it for you here.

Through a distribution arrangement with Buena Vista, The Royal Tenenbaums is being given the widest release to date of any Criterion release, available pretty well anywhere you can buy DVDs. One of the most surreal retail experiences of my life was checking out the tiny DVD section of a fairly rundown K-Mart here in Southern California, and finding the mostly empty shelves dominated by dozens of copies of The Royal Tenenbaums and Amélie. If for no other reason than its availability, I expect The Royal Tenenbaums will become one of Criterion's best-selling titles and rightly so. This is a fantastic release of a brilliant movie. And who knows? Maybe some of the people who are first introduced to The Criterion Collection through this movie will be intrigued by the label and seek out some of their other releases. Not that I expect to see Kwaidan sitting next to K-9 on the shelves of Target anytime soon, but hey... dare to dream, right?

Adam Jahnke

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