by Patrick Delgado
Moonrise Kingdom opens with a sequence that immediately lets you know what you are in for. Wes Anderson’s latest feature, which hit theaters on May 25th and has slowly expanded nationwide, begins with Suzy Bishop, a twelve-year-old girl with eyes bruised by dark eye shadow staring through binoculars out a lighthouse window. She sees before her an idyllic New England beachside, and soon, Anderson’s camera travels through the house and we are introduced to her three primped up little brothers and a pair of casually dressed parents.
Later, we will meet Sam Shakusky, a foster child and member of a local summer camp named the Khaki Scouts. The two, after a chance meeting at a local church performance, have decided to run away from their similarly unhappy lives; Sam is fervently disliked by the rest of his Scouts, while Suzy feels misunderstood by her parents. It’s a setup both highly conventional yet brimming with possibilities at the hand of a mind like Anderson. What follows will be part love story, part coming-of-age tale, part oddball comedy, but most importantly, all of these genres seamlessly blended into one and delivered through Anderson’s signature filter.
That fact may not be appealing to all. After seven features, Anderson has accumulated a loyal group of followers, and a similarly loyal group of detractors. One thing that seems sure to unite even his most fierce critics is that Anderson has always had a uniquely assured vision; one that often leads to beautiful visual compositions, if not always cleverly constructed narratives. Yet Moonrise Kingdom defies both of these accusations, coming together as a singularly accomplished tale, brimming with visual flourishes but an equal amount of wit and heart.
Anderson’s most successful feature came just three years ago with his foray into animation. Fantastic Mr. Fox, the stop-motion Roald Dahl adaptation, worked on so many levels because Anderson’s attachment to the material showed in every scene. Dahl’s work seemed a natural fit for Anderson. Dahl combined eclectic animated creations and situations with adult themes to stirring effect, which has been the defining attribute of many of Anderson’s works. Not all of them have succeeded; his characters have often been accused of behaving cartoonish, but once he embraced the cartoons, he ironically found his most human emotional undercurrents. That same spirit characterizes Moonrise Kingdom, where the men and women of Anderson’s peculiar world come alive in ways some of his previous characters have struggled to.
Anderson’s films have always contained an offbeat beauty, but the appeal of Moonrise Kingdom is not all artificial. The story is smartly assembled to allow the pieces to slowly fall into place: Sam’s foster family has disowned him following a number of incidents, Social Services will soon be in town to collect and reassign him, and Suzy’s parents, Walt and Laura, are struggling with their marriage as she has begun an affair with the same policeman who will later be charged with tracking her daughter down. The romantic entanglements are delivered with the expected amount of seriousness from Anderson’s script. Notably, we never witness Laura and the Captain share more than a cigarette, but Anderson illustrates his scenes in a way that fills in these blanks for us. The characters’ relationships are kept grounded in just the slightest bit of realism, which is enough to keep the proceedings from overflowing with quirk, and giving the story an unexpected poignancy.
The film succeeds not only on Anderson’s merits, but on his keenly assembled casting, most notably in the pair he entrusts to carry the bulk of the film. Sam is played by newcomer Jared Gilman, whose youthful features and affectionate line-readings make him perfectly suited to the kind of naïve-but-determined youngster Anderson needs him to be. Even better is fellow newcomer Kara Hayward whose blue-tinged eyes and deadlock stare make Suzy one of the film’s most fully realized characters. As easily as each one could descend into typical childish stereotypes, both create a believable chemistry and a careful demeanor, which captures the film’s mood excellently.
But even if the kids define the story, Anderson manages to find quite a bit for the adults to do as well. The Bishops are played by Frances McDormand and Bill Murray, actors who would be hard pressed to deliver a poor performance, and effortlessly light up their scenes. The two create such an interesting dynamic that it’s almost a shame someone hasn’t thought to cast them together before. Bruce Willis plays Captain Sharp, and it’s refreshing to see him tackle a different type of role, one he is surprisingly adept at. Similarly, Tilda Swinton gives her few brief scenes such a spark of confidence that you long for her to have been in more of the film. But perhaps most impressive is Edward Norton, playing the Scout Master, who replaces his normally self-serious disposition with a naturally easy going performance that highlights the films. In a few key scenes, Norton is entrusted with carrying some of the film’s most emotionally hefty moments, and hits all of the notes required of him.
Moonrise Kingdom often gives off the impression of watching an immaculately designed dollhouse. Anderson’s attention to detail is precise down to the calculated moves of each actor. The Khaki Scouts that Sam was once apart of walk in strict formation, while Social Services walks with the posture of a royal aide. The sets are pristine and Anderson frames the proceedings in a way that leaves you wishing his images were available as a wall hanging. The beautiful aura of the New England island setting matches perfectly with the calm demeanor of our protagonists, especially as they both boil over into chaos in the film’s latter segments. The costumes help fill in the blanks when we first meet the characters: the Scout Master’s uniform, tidy and organized, contrasts well with the disheveled appearance of the Shakusky parents. The film’s color scheme – deep browns and blues – gradually darkens as the film assumes its uncertain conclusion amidst a freak lightning storm. The score, composed by frequent collaborator Alexandre Desplat, comes as close to matching Anderson’s aesthetic as any music possibly could.
Each frame of Moonrise has been carefully crafted with such loving detail that it’s easy to see the passion of its creator in every detail. And that passion is so infectious it seems unlikely that even the most unwilling audience members will be able to resist it. Moonrise Kingdom finds the writer-director at the top of his game, and it’s no surprise that it has proven to be one of 2012’s most surprising successes, breaking a number of indie box office records along the way. It’s a joyful film that’s cautiously composed aesthetics are met by its moving emotional highpoints and combine to create one of the most wholly realized films of this year.