The name Wes Anderson brings certain qualities to mind. He loves symmetrical framing, dollhouse shots, a bright and vibrant color palette, a retro '60s soundtrack, and his penchant for creating some of the most memorable, one-of-a-kind characters in film.
For over 20 years, Anderson has delivered some of the most remarkable films in recent cinematic history, all inhabited by his equally amazing characters. Regardless of the type of film he's making, there's one thing you can be sure of: his movies are sure to include some incredibly unique, idiosyncratic characters with equally outlandish names, appearances, and individual eccentricities (and one of them is almost definitely going to be played by Bill Murray, even if it's a simple cameo).
From nautical deep-sea divers to 1920s hotel concierges, here are some of Wes Anderson's absolute best characters.
Herman Blume (“Rushmore”)
Bill Murray has become a regular collaborator with Wes Anderson over the years, and looking at the numerous meaty roles the filmmaker hands over for Murray to embody, it's easy to see why. While Murray appears in numerous Anderson films—in fact, with the exception of Anderson's debut Bottle Rocket, he's appeared in every single one—it's his earliest films with Anderson that provided him with his most memorable characters, such as Rushmore‘s Herman J. Blume.
A wealthy industrialist, Blume is, by every stretch of the word a successful capitalist businessman. He's conquered every challenge he's been faced with, climbed every mountain that's presented itself, and now—in his late middle age—he is starting to realize he has nothing left to accomplish. There’s no final reward for all his hard work. His family—including his unfaithful wife and distant, spoiled kids—all despise him, and he can't help but feel the same way about them.
Depressed and receding into alcoholism, Blume needs something to occupy him and hold his interest. Enter: Max Fischer, the wonder boy of Rushmore who wins Blume over by his charisma, intelligence, and outgoing nature.
Appearing as the teenage Max's sidekick in the first act of the film, Blume grows into Max's rival, with both of them attempting to win their mutual love interest's favor.
A prime example of the old adage “Money doesn't buy happiness,” the poor guy has nothing going for him, making you realize he deserves to win just once after years of continuous disappointment in life. Though an early Anderson creation, Murray's Blume remains the most nuanced and complex of his characters, and one you feel complete sympathy for throughout the film. He’s funny and tragic, a delicate balance act few actors can pull off as well as Murray.
Mr. Fox (“Fantastic Mr. Fox”)
It was a tough decision whether or not to include Mr. Fox on this list. The titular hero of Anderson's first animated film, Fantastic Mr. Fox, he's not an original creation of Anderson’s, having been taken from the children’s book by Roald Dahl.
Still, despite being the product of another creator, it's startling how well Mr. Fox fits the mold of a quintessential Anderson character. He's bold, charming, talented, and larger than life (IE, everything you'd imagine his voice actor, George Clooney, would be as a stop-motion animated fox).
At the start of Fantastic Mr. Fox, Fox appears as the archetypal gentleman thief—calm, cool, and sophisticated, he's able to balance his idyllic home life and marriage to his wife, Felicity (Meryl Streep) with his career as a professional thief. All that changes when Felicity becomes pregnant, and asks Fox to settle down and find a safer career for the sake of their family. The noble Fox agrees at first (for about 12 fox years, anyway), until the urge to return to his adventurous days becomes too strong, putting his entire anthropomorphic animal community in jeopardy as a result.
In a lot of ways, Fox embodies many of the traits of middle-aged men struggling to come to terms with their encroaching winter years. Deep down in his heart, he wants to be the supportive family man, but he needs one last thrill in his life before he's able to settle down. For that reason alone — never mind how awesome this suit-wearing, wolf-fearing, sly fox is — he earns a distinguished spot on this list as one of the best Anderson characters to date.
Royal Tenenbaum (“The Royal Tenenbaums”)
The namesake for Anderson's film of the same name, Gene Hackman's Royal Tenenbaum resembles many of the other complex, absent father figures also on this list. Like Steve Zissou, he's selfish, narcissistic, and unsympathetic, but Hackman manages to give enough life and eccentricity to his character that makes him so difficult to hate.
From being a “good guy” by any stretch of the imagination, Royal he isn't an altogether bad guy, either. If anything, like many people, he doesn't fit within the framework of a conventional father figure. He's rude, crass, and irresponsible—he takes his kids to illegal dog fights—and when he starts to see the damage he's done to both his children and to his wife (Anjelica Huston), he seeks to make it right. A complicated person deep down, Hackman's Royal is a perfect stand-in for every complicated parental figure out there—he's not perfect, but he's human—and in the end, manages to once again atone for his past mistakes with his family and improve each of their positions in life before passing away.
It was a perfect final role for Hackman to take on before retiring, and what's more, Royal leaves behind one of the best tombstones in all of film, reading “Died tragically rescuing his family from the wreckage of a destroyed sinking battleship,” going out in Royal's signature over-the-top fashion.
Klaus Daimler (“The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou”)
He doesn't make it easy, but it's hard to dislike Willem Dafoe's impish, sycophantic little second-in-command, Klaus Daimler. The right-hand man to Captain Zissou, his constant attempts to command the same level of respect as his captain often goes unmet (perhaps because he idolizes Zissou and fails to see how little respect Steve commands from others).
In essence, Klaus is pretty much the Dwight Schrute of the Belafonte, a man whose full-fledged devotion and love for his captain goes beyond simple loyalty. When he sees others vying for Steve's affection or perceives them as meaning harm in some way to Steve, he takes an instant dislike to them or views them as competition — as is the case with Ned (Owen Wilson), Steve's long-lost son.
It's easy to dismiss Klaus as some sort of Smee-inspired comedic sidekick in the first act, but the second half of the film develops his and Steve's relationship further, with Steve seeming to realize and appreciate Klaus's dedication and years of loyalty. Throughout the film, it's difficult to hate Klaus—his nonstop attempts to win Steve over and his hatred of being left out, seeming like a small child trying to get the attention of his parents.
Suzy Bishop (“Moonrise Kingdom”)
Half of the young lovers at the heart of Moonrise Kingdom, Kara Hayward's “troubled” preteen character is every bit as complicated as her romantic counterpart, Sam (Jared Gillman), if not more so.
A personal favorite character of Wes Anderson, Suzy Bishop is a depressed young lady who’s only able to find solace in the company of her books. Neglected by her parents and angry at the world, the only human connection she is able to find is in the form of Sam, the young Boy Scout whom she shares a kindred spirit with, and who is able to love and appreciate her for the person she is, rather than attempting to “fix” her through parental guidance books with titles like Coping With the Troubled Child.
Hatching the escape plan was Sam to run away and live together in the woods, you spend the entire time rooting the two on, and only grow more and more emphatic of their efforts the more you learn about their troubled familial relationships and the difficulty they have blending in with others their age.
Like Sam, Suzy is wise beyond her years, and has no idea of the potential she's capable of—for good or ill (in a blind rage, she stabs one of Sam's fellow Boy Scouts trying to bring them back home with a pair of lefty scissors). In a filmography marked by numerous likable characters, Suzy might be the one we cheer for the loudest and hardest, hoping that everything will turn out all right for her in the end.
Roebuck Wright (“The French Dispatch”)
In an ideal world, any one of the journalistic staff that appears in The French Dispatch is deserving of a spot on this list. Jeffrey Wright’s eloquent food connoisseur, Roebuck Wright, is perhaps the most interesting of the writers employed at Anderson’s fictional magazine.
A well-spoken amalgamation of several historical writers (including James Baldwin and A.J. Liebling), Wright has the most distinct voice working on The French Dispatch’s staff. A noted expert on everything from the culinary arts to mythology and crime, he possesses immense mental faculties, providing such eloquent descriptions of cuisine. It feels like the viewers taste everything Wright is describing for themselves.
A marginalized voice of the times, Wright’s identity as a Black homosexual clashes with the racist, homophobic world around him. Far from having his voice cut silent, Wright uses his written posts for the Dispatch to espouse on everything and anything that comes to mind.
Zero (“The Grand Budapest Hotel”)
The loyal second-in-command to The Grand Budapest Hotel’s Gustave H., Zero demonstrates the same dedication to his place of work as his mentor.
A hopeless romantic with a tragic past, Zero puts all of his hopes and dreams into the Grand Budapest, aspiring to one day become the next Gustave H. With the hotel’s celebrated concierge as his surrogate father-figure, Zero teaches himself every trick of the trade associated with hotel management, from pleasing long-standing guests to handling more minute aspects of daily operations.
A relatable underdog, Zero has the same appreciation for Gustave as Klaus Daimler does for Steve Zissou, their interactions and misadventures mirroring the captain and first mate of the Belafonte in more than a few crucial ways.
Moses Rosenthaler (“The French Dispatch”)
An incarcerated artist sentenced to life in hard prison, Moses Rosenthaler spends the first half of his sentence trying to take his own life, guzzling toxic toothwash in the hopes of hastening the end of his imprisonment. Approaching middle age, he returns to the artistic career he left behind, embarking on a series of avant-garde paintings of his prison guard, Simone.
Eccentric, mysterious, and in possession of a short temper, Rosenthaler is a fascinating figure in the world of Anderson’s characters. His creative aspirations and relationship with Simone – his combined lover, gaoler, and muse – gives their dynamic an interesting edge, further enriching Rosenthaler’s character.
Dignan (“Bottle Rocket”)
There's a lot that can be said of Bottle Rocket‘s Dignan, given the fact that he is the earliest of the many subsequent high-energy, sentimental, child-like protagonists of Anderson's films.
The dramatic precursor to similar over-achievers like Rushmore‘s Max Fischer and Mr. Fox, Dignan is a character who cares about two things: hanging out with his best friends and planning heists, the two things coinciding as an excuse for Dignan to bond with his buddies. Like many Anderson characters, Dignan is also inept at executing his numerous complex plans, his long-winded attempts at heists or escape attempts falling apart within seconds.
Still, Dignan's not the kind of guy who goes to pieces when his carefully-orchestrated plans fall through. He's willing to improvise, is almost always in a determined mood, and the only thing that gets him down is the occasional squabble with his beloved friends.
Though he lacks the extreme quirks of some of Anderson's later characters (Steve Zissou and Gustave H., for example), Dignan is all heart, and is the most lovable of the three thieves in Anderson's debut. Even if his plans don't always work out, you have to admire his tenacity, never-say-die attitude, and sheer persistence, as well as his undying loyalty and love for his friends.
Margot Tenenbaum (“The Royal Tenenbaums”)
Out of all Anderson's many characters that show signs of extreme depression or appear on the verge of a breakdown (Rushmore‘s Herman Blume, Moonrise Kingdom‘s Captain Sharp, any of the Tenenbaum siblings), none appears more depressed than Gwenyth Paltrow's Margot in The Royal Tenenbaums.
The adopted daughter of Royal and Etheline, Margot grew up as a talented young writer, producing plays that won her instant acclaim and success early in her career. Similar to her siblings, Chas (Ben Stiller) and Richie (Luke Wilson), she hits a bit of a career slump in her later years, preferring to spend most of her days sitting in a bathtub, watching TV, and smoking—all at the same time, of course.
Married to Bill Murray's Raleigh St. Clair, a skilled psychologist, Margot remains aloof, even more so than her adopted brothers. However, as Raleigh and Richie learn through a private detective's investigation of Margot's past, Margot is anything but boring—she's had an eventful, albeit troubled life, full of numerous sexual encounters with various individuals across the world. The only person she allows a small glimpse into what her private thoughts and feelings are is Richie, shutting herself off from everyone else.
Never has Anderson managed to create a more interesting, nuanced character in any of his films. At the conclusion of The Royal Tenenbaums, we know as much about Margot as a person as we did in the beginning—that is to say, nothing at all. Sure, we've learned a little about her past, but who she is as a person, what she wants in life, what makes her happy—all that remains a mystery. All we're left with is a bored-looking Nico-lookalike, the perfect personification of all withdrawn, angsty, moody individuals who we just can't seem to figure out.
Gustave H. (“The Grand Budapest Hotel”)
If you've taken anything away from reading this list so far, it's the realization of how odd and eccentric Anderson's characters tend to be. There's no single character more eccentric in Anderson's extensive lineup of unconventional characters, though, than Monsieur Gustave H., concierge extraordinaire of the Grand Budapest Hotel.
The oddest of Anderson's creations to date, Ralph Fiennes' adept Gustave is the epitome of the word “quirky.” He's strict, hard-working, and dedicated to his profession, treating his position as a concierge to the Grand Budapest Hotel as a skilled captain would a ship. However diligent M. Gustave is when it comes to his craft, he's also not above engaging in his own personal odd hobbies, such as sleeping with numerous geriatric, wealthy women who visit the Hotel.
A character that seems to have walked straight out of a Lost Generation novel written under the influence of mescaline and absinthe, M. Gustave is a man out of place and from another time even within the film's 1920s setting.
He's a man of excess who adores the finer things in life—his first concern upon breaking out of prison asking Zero whether he has a puff of cologne for him to put on. He’s a serial womanizer, yet never appears to be seducing his many elderly love interests out of malice or with some sort of intention to secure their wealth — he seems to love each and every one of them.
Max Fischer (“Rushmore”)
Many of Anderson's most famous, sympathetic, and memorable protagonists tend to be children. Whether it's the escaping couple, Sam and Suzy, in Moonrise Kingdom, Isle of Dog‘s no-nonsense Atari, or the aspiring lobby boy-in-training Zero in The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson's characters are either children mature for their age, or adults who are childish and irresponsible (The Royal Tenenbaum‘s Royal, Life Aquatic‘s Steve Zissou, etc.).
In his second feature film, Anderson manages to blend those two archetypal character tropes together in the form of Max Fischer, a miniature adult in a child's body, and one of the most hot-headed and immature of Anderson's characters to date.
A student at the prestigious Rushmore Academy, Max is the worst student the school has, possessing poor grades that have him on the verge of being expelled. He's also the most dedicated student on campus, running or participating in every club the academy offers.
For all Max's dedication, his clear love for the school and his inability to prioritize schoolwork illustrates his failure to recognize the important things he should be focusing on, leading him into trouble when he tries to seduce a teacher twice his age. An actor, a playwright, the captain of the debate team, and about a million other things at Rushmore, Max still has difficulty recognizing the fact that he is still a child rather than the mature adult he makes himself out to be.
Regardless, his dedication, sophistication, preciousness, and charm allow the audience to look past his flaws (including his tendency to fly into a full-on emotional rage when he doesn't get his way) as we watch Max mature. He's an early Anderson creation, but he's also one of the most memorable, lovable characters the filmmaker has ever made.
Steve Zissou (“The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou”)
Bill Murray's aquatic Jacques Cousteau-inspired explorer Steve Zissou exemplifies Wes Anderson‘s recurring depiction of complex, imperfect parental figures in his films.
At the start of the film, Steve appears as a second-rate adventurer whose biggest fan is himself. He's not that great a scientist, captain, or a sailor—the responsibilities of his position being taken over by his more than capable crew who able to command themselves. In his sixties, he's fading from the public eye, his documentaries not selling as well as they once had, which is perhaps Steve's greatest fear: irrelevance.
Like Royal Tenenbaum—the ultimate absent father figure in Anderson’s work—it's very easy to dislike Steve Zissou on the surface. However, similar to his son Ned’s initial impression of Steve, we can't help but be pulled in by him and enamored with Steve and his antics.
Unlike Ned, though, who idealizes Steve as the perfect father figure who can do no wrong, the audience can see Steve for what he is—deceitful, manipulative, selfish, lazy, but also, above all, alone. He's been all over the world, fought unimaginable mammoth-sized sea creatures, has found love and lost it, and just wants someone with him in his life who he cares for and who accepts him as a person–faults and all.
By the end of the film, Steve is able to recognize the important things in life—friends, family, and that life is too short to worry over such petty things as revenge, holding a grudge, or whether the public likes him. All that seems to matter is what those who are closest to him think. It's the most important discovery one could make about themselves, and shows that, if a blowhard like Steve can do it and change for the better, anyone can.