Film Review: Moonrise Kingdom

Wes Anderson’s fanciful, heartfelt tale of two 12-year-old runaways will delight his fans and may even win some converts among those who’ve resisted his hermetic style.

Few contemporary filmmakers are as polarizing as Wes Anderson—not because he courts controversy or wallows in bad taste…far from it. If anything, Anderson is guilty of too-refined taste, creating hermetically sealed worlds that are so meticulously crafted and overflowing with eccentric bric-a-brac, it’s no wonder he turned to stop-motion animation with 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. His detractors find his movies arch, suffocating and insufferable; his fans delight in their gentle whimsy, melancholy humor, and wondrous visual invention. Count me in the latter camp.

Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson’s seventh feature, may bring more moviegoers to the pro-Anderson ranks; along with all his instantly recognizable stylistic trademarks, it also has a disarming center in its tale of the obsessive love of two 12-year-old outcasts. His two unknowns, Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, bring real heart to Anderson’s cool, studied, hipper-than-thou universe, making this one of his most accessible and gratifying divertissements.

Set in 1965, the film opens at the New England beach house of Mr. and Mrs. Bishop (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), the taciturn parents of our heroine Suzy (Hayward) and her three quietly intense younger brothers. In a familiar Anderson maneuver, the camera pans laterally and up and down from room to room, as if offering up the family for our inspection. The story proper begins at Camp Ivanhoe, where earnest Khaki Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton) teaches his young charges the finer points of latrine construction and treehouse-building. Panic ensues when he discovers that one of his scouts, bespectacled orphan Sam (Gilman), has cut a hole in his tent and run away. His partner in flight: the restless, volatile Suzy, whose past transgressions have prompted her parents to consult an advice book called Coping with the Very Troubled Child.

Sam uses the survival skills he’s learned from Scout Master Ward to create a private haven for himself and his soul mate, whose evolving relationship is recounted in a delightful aural-visual montage of their increasingly warm written correspondence to each other after a brief meeting the previous summer. Though the mature, kohl-eyed Suzy would seem to be a formidable mismatch for the nerdy Sam, they share an “us against the world” passion that makes an inviting contrast with the repressed adult role models Anderson and co-writer Roman Coppola have provided them, including Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), the milquetoast town sheriff who’s conducting a none-too-discreet affair with Suzy’s mom.

When the two runaways are finally discovered, the adults in their lives are determined to separate them for good. But Sam’s previously callous scout troop has a change of heart, and then there’s that historic storm that is about to descend on the island—all leading to a death-defying finale in which the young lovers inspire some unexpected allies.

The eccentricity of Moonrise Kingdom may not be for everyone, but there’s no denying the obsessive craft and gorgeous filmmaking that’s gone into Anderson’s latest fable, from the individually commissioned covers of the young-adult novels Suzy devours to the almost too dense production design overseen by Adam Stockhausen for Anderson’s carefully framed tableaux. The adult players here may seem like no more than figurines in a dollhouse, but the cast is clearly in on the droll joke (and that includes Tilda Swinton, decked out in a dark violet uniform as the unyielding child-welfare bureaucrat known only as “Social Services”).

The soundtrack, too, is eclectic fun, dominated by Benjamin Britten (a school production of his Noye’s Fludde, or “Noah’s Flood,” portends what lies ahead) and Hank Williams, along with original music by frequent Oscar nominee Alexandre Desplat. Britten and Williams together? It’s all a piece with the multifarious, mad, mad world of Wes Anderson.