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By David Templeton | January 11, 2005

“I remember going to the Oregon Coast Museum to interview for a job once, back when they still had Keiko there,” recalls marine biologist Christina Slager, currently serving as husbandry curator at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, in Monterey, California. A husbandry curator is a person who oversees the teams that take care of the museum’s many exhibit animals, and Keiko is that charismatic killer whale who played the titular Orca in the movie Free Willy. “So I went over to meet the marine mammal trainers,” Slager continues, “and I went to this little stadium office, which had this giant window looking right into this big whale tank. So I’m sitting there talking to these guys, and suddenly . . . . there’s Keiko, with his nose up against the glass, kind of like he was saying, ‘Hey! What’s going on in there?,’ and making all these faces at me. It was very funny.”

This warm cetacean memory has been jogged up from Slager’s unconscious courtesy of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, a charming yet patently odd film in which Bill Murray leads a motley band of marine documentarians on a quest to kill the phantom Jaguar Shark that ate his movie-making partner, Estaban. The film contains a scene in which Murray gives an interview while a frisky Orca performs an increasingly conspicuous string of show-off maneuvers—swimming backwards, swimming sideways, swimming upside down—in the picture window behind Zissou’s desk.

“So I liked the show-off orca,” Slager allows. “But, wow! Was that a strange film or what?”

Let the record show: “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou”, while crammed with charming moments and inspired bits of underwater merriment, is a very strange film. As Slager puts it, “It was a lot of fun mixed in with a whole bunch of ‘Huh?’ and ‘What?’”.

“I liked it for the weird sea creatures,” I confess.

“Did you?” Slager replies. In “The Life Aquatic”, except for the Orca and a few other critters, the underwater animals are all fanciful creations brought to life using stop-motion animation. They include such fictional but convincingly-titled sea beasties as Crayon Pony Fish, Sugar Crabs, Hummingbird fish, and Rhinestone Tuna. In addition, there are some intelligence-challenged albino scout dolphins, and a herd of headgear-bedecked “Research turtles.”

“So, you didn’t like the sea creatures?” I ask Slager.

“Well, I kind of liked them, but they just seemed curiously out of place. This whole movie seemed like bits and pieces and little vignettes from different things all thrown together.” That said, Slager did like the animated porcupine fish the team discovers inside a downed airplane. “Porcupine fish inflate just like that,” she says, “and that’s exactly how their little spines come up. It was quite realistic. And I did like the rhinestone tuna. The tuna was accurate enough, of course they don’t really come with rhinestones. I guess the fake fish were kind of cool.

“I was bothered when he put the Crayon Ponyfish in the wineglass,” she continues, “when Murray is trying to carry it away after the plastic bag it was in springs a leak. I couldn’t get past thinking, ‘Where’s the air supply?’ But that whole experience of being given a fish in a plastic bag, that’s something magical to me. As a kid, didn’t you end up buying or winning goldfish in a bag? Who hasn’t experienced that? A fish in a bag—it’s a wonderful thing.”

The more we discuss the film, the more Slager recalls things she enjoyed.

“Did you catch when the jellyfish washed up on shore and they were filming it?” she wonders, “and Murray is saying, ‘This is the rare “rubber tide,” playing off the phrase “Red Tide”—a term used to describe toxic algal blooms that can turn the sea red. “I thought that was pretty entertaining,” she says. “There were a lot of those little gibes at marine biology and oceanography. The unpaid interns—always referred to that way, as ‘unpaid Interns’—that was very funny, We have unpaid interns at the aquarium, of course. Every aquarium I’ve ever worked at has had unpaid interns, though we don’t tend to call them that to their face, and I don’t think I’ve ever asked one to make me a Campari.”


Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to the movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This is not a review; rather, it’s a freewheeling, tangential discussion of art, alternative ideas, and popular culture.

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