Moonrise Kingdom Review
Posted by Chad Webb on 06.28.2012
The comedy and heart of pre-teen love through the eyes of Wes Anderson...
Kara Hayward: Suzy
Jared Gilman: Sam
Bruce Willis: Captain Sharp
Edward Norton: Scout Master Ward
Bill Murray: Walt Bishop
Frances McDormand: Laura Bishop
Tilda Swinton: Social Services
Jason Schwartzman: Cousin Ben
Harvey Keitel: Commander Pierce
Bob Balaban: Narrator
Directed By: Wes Anderson
Written By: Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola
Running Time: 94 minutes
Theatrical Release Date: May 25, 2012
Rated PG-13 for sexual content and smoking
If you can count on any filmmaker that won't deviate much from their conventional style, it is Wes Anderson. His films can be spotted a mile away. At the same time, he is still evolving, not to mention finding ways to appeal to mainstream audiences. Assuming that this is indeed a goal of his, Moonrise Kingdom is a step in the right direction. While this latest venture will still draw primarily the art-house crowd, it possesses a quality that even Anderson's best fail to attain properly: Sweetness. As a matter of fact, this is delightful on a level that would prompt me to give a recommendation even to Anderson detractors.
For many years, I was one of those detractors. The first indie comedy I saw from Wes Anderson was The Royal Tennenbaums, and I hated it. I thought it was incredibly self-aware, pretentious, and bland. For years I dismissed the filmmaker on that title alone. Finally after so many people praised Rushmore, I gave that a shot and thought it was highly enjoyable. Bottle Rocket was also terrific, and while I was not crazy about The Life Aquatic, The Darjeeling Limited was superb and Fantastic Mr. Fox was sublime. As it turned out, I was not a fan of the middle part of Anderson's career, which some would list as his peak, but I would describe them as unfortunate missteps on the road to better things.
The fact is, the director does exhibit certain traits in his work that divide viewers, but he's also showings signs of development that could help bridge that gap, at least intermittently, for the future. Moonrise Kingdom is an Anderson film I genuinely can't wait to see again. It starts off with Bob Balaban as a sort of narrator or guide, introducing us to the location of the events: New Penzance Island. He informs us of random facts and history about the interesting piece of land which seems meaningless, but eventually proves otherwise. With a beard and beanie that lead us to believe he was recently associated with Steve Zissou, Balaban speaks in a concentrated monotone manner as illustrated maps with occasional graphics sporadically aid the viewer as to places and distances.
The island is off the New England coast and the year is 1965. Various inhabitants are observed before the main plot unravels. There is Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), the sole police officer, who is secretly seeing Laura Bishop (Frances McDormand), an attorney with her husband Walt (Bill Murray). They have multiple children, including the rebellious and intelligent Suzy (Kara Hayward). She has been communicating with Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman), who is a member of a local Khaki Scout troupe led by Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton). One day Sam is missing from breakfast. He has run away with Suzy, and even though they are smart and have helpful skills, they are 12 years-old, which sends everyone into a worrisome frenzy. The guardians of both kids have found them to be pains in the rear. Suzy's parents even bought a "How To" book on dealing with a troubled child. Sam's foster parents have had such difficulty with him that they simply decided not to invite him back home once he flees the boy scouts. Together, Sam and Suzy click. With similar dilemmas, they become pre-teen soul mates. Their aim is to leave New Penzance permanently and get married, but their age presents numerous obstacles to achieve that.
Writers Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola infuse the substance with feelings of nostalgia. Even if you weren't born in the 60's (as they both were), the concept of romance before one becomes a teenager, grasps the meaning of love, or understands sexual arousal will spark memories. We take the position of the two leads and thus recall our own emotions at that age. The relationship between a young boy and girl is reminiscent of those in Bridge to Terabithia and perhaps even Let the Right One In to a degree, but the maturation of Sam and Suzy steers clear of fantasy and horror and focuses on this period in a child's life head on with humor in a more organic fashion than you might expect. One key scene is honest, heartfelt, and also awkward as Sam and Suzy kiss for the first time, cop a feel, and well, acknowledge those "special" feelings with the opposite sex they are unfamiliar with.
The standard Anderson characters are relegated to a supporting capacity while two relative unknowns take the spotlight. His customary trappings are there, but the atmosphere is slightly different. Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman establish instant chemistry and give sincere performances that are not bogged down by the usual rookie child flaws, whether it be ambivalence, a tendency towards pedantic, or exaggerations. They are unwavering, witty, and poignant. Bruce Willis is hilarious as the somewhat dense, albeit caring Captain Sharp, and merely the sight of Edward Norton marching around in a Scout Master uniform will induce chuckles, but he is fabulous as well trying to bet the absolute best as his job. Frances McDormand and Bill Murray have no problems obtaining laughs as Suzy's misguided parents, who always refer to each other as counselor. Anderson regular Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, and Harvey Keitel all do nicely in minor quirky roles, and for that matter the entire Khaki Scout/Boy Scout troupe is entertaining.
What separates Anderson's films from others is how visually distinctive they are. Although this facet could be argued as a detriment in some cases, Anderson constructs his projects with a picturesque beauty. For Moonrise Kingdom, everything is made to resemble the 1960's, even the clarity of the transfer. The set design and costumes are as bright and lingering as usual with pastel colors and distinguishable patterns. He and cinematographer Robert Yeoman employ a lot of nifty tracking shots that glide through walls to display the happenings of different rooms. A super 16mm camera is selected, instilling a visible grain for added exuberance and relevance. There is also a wonderful shot when Sam and Suzy meet to embark on their quest, standing apart from one another like two western gunfighters. Later on in the tale, he utilizes slow-motion in an amusing way as a storm gets heavier and Scout Master Ward is forced to rescue someone. And of course Alexandre Desplat's score is integrated into the action brilliantly. Benjamin Britten's orchestral canon is also crucial as it is featured prominently. Along with the music, books and movies are often referenced subtly, but they stem from the identities of the characters convincingly and are not forced.
The normal deadpan approach to the comedy can be found, but Anderson also emphasizes daffy wit and slapstick into his deliberately coordinated seventh offering. Moonrise Kingdom has a sadness that permeates the substance, but any lugubrious aura is overwhelmed by the beguiling whimsical nature. These people and their situations are obviously not intended to be totally realistic, but the underlying truth and benevolence mixes with the surrealistic properties to create a balance free of blemishes. The way the adults and kids interact, how their qualities correlate and differ, is also intriguing. The central youthful couple is more intelligent than the grown-ups in many circumstances. Moonrise Kingdom blissfully captures all of Anderson's strengths and very few of his flaws, and as an added bonus, it maintains a consistent pace and clocks in at a hair over 90 minutes. Not a moment is wasted. Every exchange and sentiment is appropriately accentuated. It has the framework of a visual poem, exceedingly rich and profound, but brisk and pleasant.
The 411: Honestly, I paid to see Moonrise Kingdom because I've seen all of Anderson's films. I did not expect anything all that better or worse than his past two efforts. I'm glad I was surprised by how charming the director's seventh outing really was. Though it might be early to say, this is definitely among the best films so far in a relatively middling 2012 slate. The performances are spectacular from top to bottom. You might think many of these well-known names would occupy bigger roles, but they all make their mark despite how much or little time they have on screen. Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman stand out from their more famous cast members however. Their hysterically tender characters make the audience feel for an Anderson universe perhaps more intensely than ever before. I'm not sure how much longer this will be in theaters, but I strongly urge you to check it out if you can.