In many ways, Moonrise Kingdom is the epitome of a Wes Anderson film, the quintessential work by a filmmaker who has taken the popular conception of the auteur theory to an extreme, forging a very individual and recognizable style that has only gotten more precise and well-defined with every film. You’d think that by this point, having successfully integrated his style into features, shorts, commercials, and even stop-motion animation, a straight-up comedy/drama would lapse into either retread tedium or self-parody. And for some people, Anderson has probably already reached this point long ago – his particular brand of twee quirk is tailor-made to annoy a certain portion of the population. But people who find Anderson’s whimsy up their alley will be delighted with this new offering, which manages to stay fresh and delightful while maintaining and even refining his distinctive style.
A New England island, roadless and only navigable from the mainland by helicopter or boat, is home to a small police force, a pair of lawyers and their progeny, a boy scout camp, and miles of wilderness. When twelve-year-old scout Sam Sankusky goes missing, a search is mounted, but the other boys approach it like a manhunt rather than a rescue – the awkward and forthright boy is not well-liked. Except by Suzy Bishop, the oldest daughter of the lawyers, who has arranged a meeting with Sam. The children carry out their idlewild, their young love blossoming as they hike and camp…until the adults finally catch up to them.
The childhood romance is played pretty straight, rather than for laughs or satire as it easily could be. Though you’d think this could end up being creepy or inappopriate, it never really comes off that way in Anderson’s world. There’s no “real” here, so when these children behave like grownups (without losing their childhood innocence) and the grownups behave like children (without losing their adult weariness), it all feels perfectly-pitched within this pastel-ridden Anderson fantasy. The quality and timing of the acting is certainly a major factor here, with Bill Murray, Bruce Willis, and Frances McDormand hitting every note right and lending both the satiric humor that the children lack as well as a few surprisingly somber and deeply-felt moments amongst the film’s surface-level brightness. Meanwhile, Edward Norton‘s idealistic but naive scoutmaster is a delight, a type of role I haven’t seen Norton in for a while and that I really enjoyed. Not to mention the kids, who are the perfect little blank slates for Anderson to work with – Jared Gilman slips easily into Anderson’s ensemble, and you could see him in a few years taking on the roles Jason Schwartzman takes now, while Kara Hayward is like a younger version of Jessica Chastain, never overwhelming the material around her, but managing to both stand out and complement the rest of the ensemble.
Adding to the artificial feel is Anderson’s use of tableaux-like staging. He’s always tended to film scenes as if they took place on distinct but separate planes, favoring sideways traveling shots and horizontal composition and movement within shots. I thought that had reached its zenith in Fantastic Mr. Fox, but Moonrise Kingdom is perhaps even more extreme in its use of the style. The credit sequence runs over an exploration of the Bishop household that essentially looks like we’re moving from room to room in one of those dollhouses that opens up so you can see inside, the camera a passive observer merely watching what these dolls will do. That rather suggests a lack of emotional involvement, which will likely be held up as the biggest fault of the film, if indeed, one wishes to find fault with it. It didn’t particularly bother me, because I felt the emotional truth still shone through, perhaps even because Anderson allows his camera to keep its distance.
Ultimately, if you like Anderson anyway, you’ll find this film delightful, from the camerawork to the oversaturated colors to the running commentary from Bob Balaban, who pops up now and again to describe aspects of the island’s life and weather systems. If you don’t, you probably won’t. At the same time, Anderson isn’t totally in a holding pattern here, and though this is a much slighter film than something like The Royal Tenenbaums, he’s introduced some interesting elements into the film. Notably, though he retains some of his stock cast from other films (Murray, Schwartzman), the addition of McDormand and Willis add a great level of world-weariness that has been mostly ironic in previous Anderson films but rings true here, while Tilda Swinton‘s very small role as Social Services (literally, that’s what she’s credited as) is wonderfully acidic. The presence of McDormand perhaps is enough to bring the Coens to my mind, and Anderson doesn’t have their vicious sense of dark comedy, but there is a heightened sense of dialogue and reality, indeed a whimsy (though put to different purposes) that I never realized before that these filmmakers share.
So now the real question. I’ve seen all of Anderson’s features at this point and consider myself a fairly big fan of his, so how does Moonrise Kingdom rank up on my Anderson-filtered Flickchart? Pretty well, actually, #3 out of his seven features. I might have to rewatch and re-evaluate Fantastic Mr. Fox (currently fourth) to be certain that it wouldn’t be higher than Moonrise Kingdom, but all the rest of the rankings look pretty accurate to me. As I said, The Royal Tenenbaums is a slightly more substantial film in terms of story and theme, and frankly so is Rushmore. But that slightness is really the only possible criticism that I’d weigh against Moonrise Kingdom, and it’s not really a criticism – I think the movie’s fine as it is, and Anderson accomplished exactly what he wanted to with it.
Moonrise Kingdom is currently ranked #479 out of 2958 on my Flickchart.