What’s Up, Wes? ‘Asteroid City’ Exists In a Looney Tunes Dimension

Lots of Wes Anderson movies look less like traditional cinema and more like classic cartoons performed by flesh and blood humans. But no Wes Anderson movie has made this more clear than 'Asteroid City.'

Wes Anderson on the set of ‘Asteroid City.’ Roger Do Minh/Pop. 8

The films of director Wes Anderson seem to get more Andersonian with each passing year. He has the most recognizable style of any director working today, instantly identifiable even to people who’ve never seen one of his films all the way through (as is apparent in the Anderson parodies on TikTok). Anderson has never had much use for naturalism, often calling attention to the artifice of storytelling in his work. That fact that the audience can notice the effort of the filmmaker and his crew throughout the viewing experience is a feature, not a bug, and is often even part of the text itself. His work has only gotten more playful as his authorial voice has grown louder, to the extent that his most recent films look less like traditional cinema and more like classic cartoons performed by flesh and blood humans. Whether they know it or not, this is the aesthetic that Anderson’s parodists are imitating. It’s never been more apparent that Anderson has the soul of an animation director from the 1950s. He works primarily on a two-dimensional canvas, he demonstrates meticulous control over the frame, and most importantly, he is a master of the art of the gag. Anderson dabbles in animation, of course, even writing and co-directing two stop-motion features, but Asteroid City might be the most specifically Looney Tunes in his catalog.

Anderson’s films have an economy of motion typically only seen in hand-drawn animation, where backgrounds are static paintings and each of the characters’ gestures comes with a price tag. Obviously, this isn’t the case with live-action, where an actor standing still and an actor waving his arms wildly requires roughly the same amount of labor, but Anderson restricts his character’s movements anyway. Naturally, this is a hit with the Every Frame a Painting crowd, as it demonstrates the director’s meticulous control over the composition and blocking of each shot, but the analogs to cel animation are at least as evident. Excepting rare mixed-media examples, there is no “location shooting” in animation. Every set and every single prop that appears in a cartoon must be created specifically for it, crafted by a variety of hands but all towards an agreed-upon aesthetic. This kind of bespoke specificity is found in plenty of live-action films set in fantasy worlds or distant futures, but where else but in a Wes Anderson film is such a handmade, unified production aesthetic applied to a 20th century period piece?

Top: Steve Carell, Aristou Meehan, and Liev Schreiber in 'Asteroid City'; bottom: the desert background in a Chuck Jones Road Runner cartoon.
Top: Steve Carell, Aristou Meehan, and Liev Schreiber in ‘Asteroid City’; bottom: the desert background in a Chuck Jones Road Runner cartoon. Top: Pop. 87 Productions/Focus Features; bottom: Warner Bros.

Consider Anderson’s strong preference for moving both characters and the camera along a horizontal plane. In classic cel animation, environments are rendered using long, painted background plates, which can slide under the character cells to create the illusion of a dolly/tracking shot. Anderson loves a long horizontal tracking shot, but his other oft-parodied camera move is just as evocative of vintage cartoons: the 90-degree pan. Anderson’s speedy turn of the camera from facing one flat wall to the facing another at a perpendicular angle is a move that feels straight out of Merry Melodies. In cel animation, you cannot actually pan the camera, because there is no actual set. Instead, your options are to either paint a panoramic background that creates the illusion of a camera pan (which should be done quickly so that the audience doesn’t notice the lack of parallax) or to insert a fake “whip pan,” a blurry and distorted approximation of the parts of the background between the first and second angle. In both Anderson’s films and classic Warner Bros. cartoons, whip pans like these are used not only to establish a new setting, but to reveal signage and graphic design gags.

And there is no greater master of this brand of American animation than Chuck Jones, director of some of the most treasured cartoons of all time and a clear influence on Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City. The film is set in a theatrically exaggerated desert in the American Southwest, shot in the perfectly flat Chinchón, Spain with scale wooden planks filling in for the distant mountains. Throw in a few impossibly precarious stone spires, and this would be the exact environment of one of Jones’ Wile E. Coyote cartoons. (There’s even a road runner puppet who pops up a few times during Asteroid City, greeting a character with a friendly “meep meep.”) The story takes place at a convention in which “junior stargazers and space cadets” show off their wacky space-age inventions, including a jet pack and death ray that looks straight out of Marvin the Martian’s arsenal. Speaking of Marvin, when an actual extraterrestrial arrives at the proceedings, he is a spindly humanoid with limbs that bend like rubber, and the only distinct features on its charcoal gray body are a pair of expressive white eyes. The alien is an awkward, silent presence who is nearly always looking directly into the barrel of the camera, and has a physical comedic timing that feels unmistakably Bugs Bunny.

These parallels between Wes Anderson’s style and classic Warner Bros. cartoons may stem from similar influences. Anderson and Jones both clearly dig early silent comedies and the deadpan physical comedy of Chaplin and Keaton. Anderson’s work is pointedly stagey, especially in this film, which is imagined as a cinematic interpretation of a television special about a stage play, which would also account for its linear plane and handmade production aesthetic. It also happens to be a metatextual matryoshka that Chuck Jones, the director of “Duck Amuck,” would certainly appreciate. Anderson loves when the work shows, when you can see the impressions of the puppeteer’s fingers on a stop-motion puppet. However impressive or expensive the production might be in reality, and however deep and mature the themes of the story, Wes Anderson’s films have the whimsy of a child’s home movies. When you’re eight years old, you can’t get together with your friends and make an eight-minute cartoon in an afternoon. You can, however, set up a camera in your living room, and play Bugs & Daffy. Imitation is only the very first step of invention, as a generation of filmmakers playing Wes Anderson on TikTok is now discovering, but it is how most inventors get started. 

What’s Up, Wes? ‘Asteroid City’ Exists In a Looney Tunes Dimension