Wes Anderson’s newest film, Moonrise Kingdom is, as I described it to a friend, his Wes Ander-most film. In a lot of ways, this feels like the culmination of all his previous films into the pinnacle of his artistic style.
Want over-smart, precocious kids? This one has two of them. Big visual jokes, like the kind that entered his filmic vocabulary in his last movie, the animated Fantastic Mr. Fox? Check. An all-star cast working for peanuts? Bigger than ever. A French new-wave style of cinematography, updated to fit an American story-book aesthetic? Here in spades. Bill Murray? Boom, baby. Oddball characters that take comfort in their strange routines and ceremony? A-yup. Mark Mothersbaugh or Alexandre Desplat music? Both, actually. British invasion tunes? Well, okay, not that one. But there is a great French ye-ye tune that fans of April March’s covers will probably recognize.
The big difference is that, unlike his other films that seem to have been made in the past, taking place in an anachronistic future, this one actually is a period piece set on a New England island in the mid-1960s. Well, that and the fact that it’s his first live-action film that is not rated R.
The story behind Moonrise Kingdom is that of a 12-year-old couple which decide to escape their miserable lives and head into the wild, launching a community-wide search by the whole island (including the Boy Scout stand-in “Khaki Scouts”) to recover the pair before the “worst storm of the second half of the 20th century” hits.
The story then moves along at a clip, pausing for the appropriate character moments, until its entertaining conclusion in which the storm hits and all hell breaks loose. In the meantime, the kids are delightfully twisted. Sam, the boy who escapes camp and is smaller than the girl, Suzy, displays a Max Fischer-like confidence beyond his years and enjoys painting (landscapes and nudes, mostly.) Suzy is the quiet daughter of a lawyer couple who loves to read female-centric adventure fiction. Both of them are considered to have “mental problems.” It’s a great look into how little it sometimes takes to be cast a misfit and how society attempts to curb those who don’t fit in. Even if they’d rather just peacefully remove themselves from everyone else to be on their own, using the metaphor of a couple of young kids in the woods, society won’t let them, as evidenced by the extreme measures Sam’s fellow scouts are initially willing to go through to bring him back. Anderson’s bread and butter has been shining lights on outcasts and misunderstood geniuses and Moonrise Kingdom absolutely follows that arc. The way Anderson seems to bring back his eternal-autumn color palate and scenery from Fox just helps move along an almost never-ending sense of sunset falling over the end of American innocence. At the same time, perhaps a little ironically, the more family-friendly rating actually seems to help bring out the whimsy in his work, while never feeling like he’s pulled his punches.
There truly are some stand-out performances in the film. Ed Norton puts in what may be his best performance in a long time as the troop’s scoutmaster that tasks himself with trying to bring back his lost member. Jason Schwartzman is hilarious as another supposed Khaki leader that is at once a terrible authority figure and a character you will likely be rooting for. But really all the actors seem to be working together in service of the story and with deference to the main kids. Speaking of kids, Anderson coaxes fantastic performances out of his young actors, especially the scouts who exude tons of personality in a short period of time, often with just their appearance and a few actions.
It’s absolutely a fantastic experience that, if you’re a Wes-head like me, will be one of the best films of the summer and make you laugh. (Though granted, I was laughing more than just about anyone else in the theater.) In any case, in my opinion, it’s a lovely film that manages to build on Anderson’s previous work and themes while never feeling like a retread of that work.
(Four and a half stars out of five)