Absolutely enchanting, Moonrise Kingdom begs the question: “Who doesn’t like Wes Anderson?”
That’s been asked countless times since the film served as the opening night presentation of the Cannes Film Festival earlier this month. Anderson has created a distinctive body of work, starting with Bottle Rocket, which came first as a short film and then a feature. His next two films, like Bottle Rocket, were written in colloboration with Owen Wilson and confirmed the promise that Anderson had shown. Rushmore (1998) and The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) were both mature pieces of work, shifting between comedy and drama as they explored a teen’s fractured view of the world (in the former) and the slow fracture of a family (in the latter).
After that, however, Anderson and Wilson split as writing partners, and the director’s precise visual compositions and arch musical cues began to predominate; the characters receded into less-defined, more amorphous portrayals in front of cool landscapes in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Hotel Chevalier, and The Darjeeling Limited. The stop-motion animation of Fantastic Mr. Fox, delivered with deadpan comic style to spare, worked beyond expectations as a manifestation of the director’s most endearing characteristics.
Moonrise Kingdom, then, serves perhaps as the start of the next phase of Anderson’s career. The elements that have been displayed in previous films — the most beguiling of romances, a child’s-eye view of the world, the quiet despair of a family slowly torn asunder, the cool appraisal of one’s own limitations — are mixed together in a tasty souffle that is well seasoned with humor and displayed with Anderson’s unusually well-composed sense of balance.
Similar to his most successful previous films, Moonrise Kingdom is grounded in reality but takes flight in fantasy. Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward) have fallen in love. It does not matter that they are 12 years of age; they know what true, everlasting love mean — it means you do anything to spend time with your lover, even if it requires that you run away from home (in the case of Suzy) or your scout troupe (for Sam).
Much of this idyllic movie, set on a fictional island off the coast of New England in 1965, is spent with Sam and Suzy as they get to know one another better. While it’s possible to quibble about the details of their relationship, there’s no doubt that it feels authentic to the experience, at least as most of us who are adults struggle to call to mind our first love.
The lightness of spirit that carried Fantastic Mr. Fox to great heights is present in Moonrise Kingdom, as are the uncomfortable strains that are placed upon adults in The Royal Tanenbaums. Here the adult world is represented especially by Suzy’s anxious parents, played by Bill Murray and Frances McDormand. They have grown apart, to the point that Suzy’s mother is carrying on a secret love affair with the island’s police chief (Bruce Willis).
Another dimension to the adult world is introduced by scout troupe leader Edward Norton, who is diligent, yet does not seem especially competent. All the adults, including Harvey Keitel and Jason Schartzmann as scout leaders and Tilda Swinton as the anonymously named “Social Services,” are motivated by a bland desire to do the right thing, without really knowing what that is. They live in a world separate from the swirling protests that would soon engulf all major American cities; they are away from the mainstream of society, in a coccoon that they are afraid to leave.
It should be stressed, however, that all the adults play supporting roles in the light drama that is centered on Sam and Suzy. Ultimately, it is their concerns and their perspective that comes to have the upper hand in the narrative, but it feels like a gentle and warm embrace of values long forgotten.
Moonrise Kingdom is a beautiful, enveloping picture. It’s the rare case of a film that ends before we’ve grown weary of visiting its world, which only exists in the mind of Wes Anderson.
Moonrise Kingdom opens today at the Angelika Dallas.