Animal Symbolism in The Royal Tenenbaums by Kevin Lee
Wes Anderson is one of the most puzzling filmmakers, inviting audiences to dissect and debate his films with clever use of subtext and symbolism. While the New Yorker asks if Wes Anderson hates dogs, I think what’s clear is Anderson employs animals as powerful symbols.
Just take Royal’s prized Havelina Boar’s Head from 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums. What better symbol for an adulterous man than an snorting pigs head? When Etheline kicks Royal out of the house on Archer Avenue, the Havelina comes down off the wall, to symbolize Royal’s departure. It is hung again when Royal returns home with “the cancer.”
Actually take the entire movie. The Royal Tenenbaums is a study in the use of animal symbolism.
All of the Tenenbaum children have corresponding animals that represent themselves and sometimes serve as stand-ins and mascots for their specific characters.
Chas and his brood, Ari and Uzi are the Dalmatian-mice; productive, reproductive and indistinguishable from each other. I think the real idea here is that Chas has never gotten over the trauma of his childhood (he and Margot both felt unloved by Royal who devoted most of his time to his relationship with Richie). Chas’ psyche is still stuck at the house on Archer Avenue just like the mice that remain there. Chas’ wife Rachel who dies in a plane crash is represented by their beagle Buckley who miraculously survived the disaster. When Buckley is killed at the hands of Eli Cash, Chas is finally able to put the death of his wife behind him. Royal gives Chas a gift – Sparkplug, the fireman’s Dalmatian dog, a sort of a adult-version of the mice Chas created. With this gesture of kindness we see Chas enter a more adult relationship with his father; putting aside past resentments.
Richie’s animal avatar is Mordecai, his faithful boyhood bird. Richie’s childhood trauma is wrapped up in his inability to express romantic love towards his sister, Margot. This frustration leads Richie to fly the coop, so to speak. He leaves New York City for a sabbatical at sea, mirroring the action of Mordecai who sails away when Richie sets him free, right before the opening credits. The bird returns when Richie is ready to be honest about his feelings for Margot.
Margot’s spirit animal is the zebra and the reasons for this are both concrete and abstract. Concrete in that the wallpaper in her room is full of zebras, in the play she writes as a child she casts herself as a zebra, and when she spends the night at the museum with Richie they sleep in the Africa wing underneath a zebra. Abstract in that, perhaps the black-and-white stripes of the zebra correspond to the black-and-white spots of Chas’ dalmatian mice. Maybe because Royal views both Chas and Margot as second rate to his favorite Richie.
The other characters are less easy to define as specific animals and who’s to say they should be. Royal calls Etheline’s suitor Henry Sherman an “old grizzly bear.” Eli Cash masquerades as a cowboy and you could make a connection from him to a wild stallion, the creatures that no doubt inhabit his fictional tales about Custer and the Old West. But he strikes as maybe a snake or jackyl from old mythology. Definitely a troublemaker and trickster. The hardest to pin down is Etheline Tenenbaum who I think bucks my theory completely. She’s probably represented best by something astral and un-animal. She maintains the world all the characters exist in, and perhaps is Mother Earth, the creator of all life and to be worshiped. This would explain why Eli still sends Etheline his clippings hoping to seek approval; like a snake asking it’s creator be given legs so that it’ll feel like a real animal.
Wes Anderson employs symbols masterfully. There’s a scene near the end of the film where Margot is at the ice cream parlor with Royal. If you look in the background of that scene you’ll notice that every single table is occupied by a father and his young daughter. This is a specific choice and so it’s important. Wes is cluing us into what’s happening. Same deal with the choice of wardrobe. Wes is able to tie characters together with bright red track suits, brown camel fur coats, or bellhop uniforms.
What’s great about art is that you can read it anyway you want. The best art usually leaves some things open for interpretation. These observations are just theories. I’m trying to answer some of the questions posed by the film for myself. The best art doesn’t answer questions, it asks them. And that’s why I’m still thinking about this movie more than a decade after its release.