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20 Years Later, Anchorman is Still a Wild Fantasy Adventure Wrapped in Comedy

Looking back on Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy on its 20th anniversary.

By Matthew Jackson
Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) does mouth exercises in a suit in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004).

It's been 20 years, and Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy still stands as a very strange comedy beast, particularly when you consider its impact. After its release and success in 2004, it was followed by countless comedies trying to mimic its particular stylistic magic, including films by the very same creative team, but none of them ever quite captured the combination of the anarchic and the satirical that made the film work so well. Even now, it stands alone. 

Why? Well, the word "legend" in the title is part of the key to Anchorman's success and enduring appeal. It's a word that implies something mythic, folkloric, like Paul Bunyan in a suit sitting behind an anchor desk. That kind of tone, laid out right there in the title, buys you all kinds of license to get silly with things, to play with scope and stakes and wild narrative shifts as much as you like because, after all, legends are never meant to be entirely realistic. And it's that not-entirely-realistic tone that buys Anchorman –– now streaming on Peacock –– all the chances it takes, and helps it to hold up not just as a great comedy, but as a wild satirical fantasy adventure.

Why Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy Is More Than Just a Great Comedy

This all starts, of course, with Will Ferrell in the title role, and what still might be his best comedic performance. Ron Burgundy is, put simply, not really a person. He's a caricature, a deliberately over-the-top embodiment of 1970s sexism and macho posturing, and the more we see of the film the more we see that the "legend" of the title is something of Ron's own making. We know this in part because of the way he talks about himself, but we also know it because, the moment his supremacy is challenged by ambitious anchor Veronica (Christina Applegate), his entire world starts to crumble. There's no real solid foundation to his sense of self, because for years he has existed in a system –– also deliberately over-the-top, but rooted in the reality of '70s patriarchal culture clashing with feminism –– that reinforces his behavior and his own belief in himself.

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One of the film's great strengths, thanks to both Ferrell and director Adam McKay (Don't Look Up), is how well it understands this dynamic, and Ron's own fragile character. Ferrell plays him with a whirlwind sense of self-aggrandizing bombast, punctuated by moments of striking vulnerability and self-questioning. The world of Anchorman is bizarre and cartoonish, yes, but it has its emotional roots in the story of a man who believes his own hype, then suddenly realizes he doesn't deserve it.

That analysis of Anchorman's use of culture clash themes to portray a character's conflict and ultimate (temporary) downfall might seem a little heavy to you, and indeed it is if it's viewed in only that context. But Anchorman, pointed as it is in its mockery of a certain kind of entitled man, is not all about that. This is an over-the-top comedy, of course, and we're all here to have fun. To make that happen, the film creates a suitably zany atmosphere in which we're encouraged to root for Ron while also ridiculing his shortcomings, because the tone of the film tells us that the danger is never permanent and the fall is going to be punctuated by a climb. There's always the sense, thanks to things like a street fight in the middle of the movie, that the action will turn on a dime, reversing fortunes and turning tragedy into comedy and back again. 

Then, of course, there's the incredible ensemble cast which includes Steve Carell (The Office), Dave Koechner, Paul Rudd, Fred Willard, and more. Everyone is dialed into the tone, everyone is squeezing every drop of comedy out of any given moment, and everyone is all-in on the anything-can-happen weirdness of the film. This collective embracing of the kind of movie they're all out to make buys the film the chance to do everything from showcase the dramatic survival story of Ron's dog Baxter to setting the climax in a Kodiak bear habitat. It all adds up to present something that's part period piece, part fantasy, and part living cartoon; the film's ability to dance between those tones and land them all at once means that Anchorman is still a joy to watch, 20 years later.

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy is now streaming on Peacock.