Moonrise Kingdom appears to be a delicate fancy of a film – an assessment you suspect might entertain Wes Anderson – offering no more ground-breaking a story than young love, with the director’s traditional preoccupation with whimsy, and creating such artfully created landscapes and characters that they flirt outrageously with magic realism, though without explicit realisation of that concept. But there are weightier issues at hand, of parental neglect, of revolution (not just sexual but also anti-establishment), and it seems completely appropriate that Anderson chose to set it in as provocatively important a time as 1965.
The film follows two young lovers – Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward) – who escape their lives to run away together, and the ensuing chaos of their parents and the local authorities’ attempts to find them: no more than a gentle plot that suggests nothing of the drama and comedy that subsequently unfolds.
It is a film about two storms: one a very real monsoon book-ending the main narrative and playing an increasingly important role in how the story develops into the final act and the other the storm in a teacup of the young leads’ burgeoning and forbidden relationship. Anderson is never dull enough to insist on the parallel we could draw between the occasionally wretched way love feels and his atmospheric storm, but it is a parallel that defies ignorance, even if it is far more rewarding to consider the monsoon as something of a fulfilled prophecy of the supposed dangers of rampant, naive hedonism. Because irresistibly Moonrise Kingdom is about answering some pertinent questions: what would happen if young hearts were allowed to run free, and what if the only issues that carried any weight were those dreamed up by the minds of children?
To answer them, Anderson builds a world governed by children or at least childishness to such a degree that every house looks like a dolls’ house, violence has only cartoon-like effect and every adult character is either villain or fool (at least before some are offered the chance of redemption). None of those characters appear either responsible or particularly happy, and without exception they all shirk their responsibilities to each other and to their young charges, either existing in a fabricated world of order that they think confirms their important status, whether by wearing a Scout Master’s uniform or needlessly bellowing instructions to their children through a megaphone. In that context, childish concerns and ideas are allowed to run rampant, to usually devastating effect: young love is encouraged (including an uncomfortable “sex-scene” of sorts which might raise a few eyebrows), an adolescent Scout troupe carries weapons and enacts grand Great Escape-style capers and children are afforded an odd, grotesquely adult-like gravitas.
The result is that things that could and should be nipped in the bud end up being blown completely out of proportion – another parallel with how the young lovers experience the new feelings they experience together – as the film entertains its huge What If notion with great fun, and a touching resolution that confirms that maybe the escalating events of the story did leave a lasting positive effect on its community. Indeed, as the story develops, the script offers most of the tragically foolish adult characters ways to resolve their own issues that wouldn’t have happened without Sam and Suzy running away together.
There is certainly an idea that Moonrise Kingdom is a kind of grown-up, or at least grown-out children’s book, which definitely helps explain the subtle magic-realist feel – like the most timeless of successful children’s books (and those which can be read by anyone) the story perfectly conveys how children see the world, while still retaining a sort of universally appealing dramatic element that appeals to the more adult of viewers. There is however a lot more humor, with Anderson playing on audience perceptions of young characters, and how relationships should work between children and adults.
Like Fargo – a film comparison I couldn’t resist even as I watched – in order to really enjoy the comedy, we have to realize that every line in Moonrise Kingdom is designed for comic effect, even when delivered with stony-faced seriousness, which is wonderfully effective for the laugh counter. To hear 12 year olds talking with absolute authority about adult issues like marriage, sex, violence, community, despite their usual naivety is so grotesque it is hilarious and the sight of Harvey Keitel and Edward Norton in adult Scout Uniforms has much the same effect. That isn’t where the comedy ends though, with more conventional jokes, including a stand-out and very generous moment for a raging Bill Murray peppered throughout, and a hearty amount of laughs packed into the film.
The art design of the film is typically strong, and typically recognizable as from the mind of the director: every landscape looks like it was painted, so intricate and visually textural are they and the environments feel like a character in their own right. It helps that the film is shot brilliantly well, with some bold but extremely effective compositional and transitional choices that add to the idiosyncratic identity of the film. Linked inherently to their quality is the soundtrack, which is ingenius, and which will undoubtedly be cannibalized in future by opportunist advertisers to add whimsy and magic to their adverts, but which before then will become part of my CD collection. Two confirmations of quality, I’m sure you will agree.
Being a Wes Anderson project, the cast is of course large and swollen with talent. Chief responsibilities lie with youngsters Hayward and Gilman who are both very good, and who crucially clearly understand the responsibilities of comedy without mugging or over-acting. Anderson usually gets strong performances out of his casts, no matter who they include – some say because of the theater troupe dynamic his film-making approach encourages – and Norton, Murray and Frances McDormand all offer fine but completely subtle performances. This is particularly impressive given Anderson’s ability to so heavily characterize that the mere sight of someone brings a laugh, as in the case of Bob Balaban‘s narrator and Anderson vet Jason Schwartzman here – something which requires the actor to leave more of a mark than the character.
A word must also be offered about Bruce Willis – lambasted recently for some lazy film choices that have seen him far from challenged and even further from actual engagement, Willis is good here, offering an understated, tragicomic turn as Captain Sharp, the sheriff charged with leading the search party, who could quite easily be the geographically removed twin of Willis’ other fine comic character Ernest Menville. Like that Death Becomes Her performance, Willis plays down the star quality and paints Sharp as a slightly bumbling, completely charming fool and hopefully the sometimes Die Hard actor will explore the possibility of taking on more roles like this.
At the final evaluation, Moonrise Kingdom finds Wes Anderson in top form, playing to his strengths and trading on every characteristic of his film career to date with great success: it looks wonderful, the cast is almost universally excellent and the story is both humorous and utterly engaging on a number of levels. The ending might feel a little muddy, but it is still one of the best films the director has yet made, and certainly the most technically impressive in terms of his shot choices. The opening sequence in particular confirms that this is a shot-maker of serious quality.
Who says all he can do is whimsy?
The Upside: Hugely charming, and featuring both typically excellent cast performances, and some wonderful technical flourishes.
The Downside: The sexual awakening scene might be a little too graphic for some tastes, though it does serve a wider purpose.