If the filmmaking style of precious auteur Wes Anderson turns you off, stay the hell away from Moonrise Kingdom, for it is by far the most quintessential Wes Anderson film Wes Anderson has ever made. It’s his thesis film populated with melancholic youngsters listening to records in tents and wishing for liberation in their mini-hyperliterate-robot voices. Everything is framed perfectly and designed intricately within long and impressive dolly shots. The whole thing is beautiful. The man is an aesthetics wizard, no doubt.
What Moonrise Kingdom lacks is an effective emotional punch. The kind we got in Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and even Bottle Rocket (I may have cried a little when Dignan got arrested). Moonrise Kingdom is a definite improvement over The Darjeeling Limited, but watching the blossoming love between two 12-year-olds and their subsequent separation didn’t feel authentic. The fact that they talk in a cold monotone doesn’t help either.
It’s 1965 and on a small island off the New England Coast, orphan Sam (Jared Gilman) ditches his Khaki Scout troop to meet up with his troubled pen pal girlfriend Suzy (Kara Hayward). Sam’s incredible scouting skills help them survive while scout master Ed Norton, Suzy’s lawyer parents Bill Murray and Frances McDormand, and police officer Bruce Willis are on their heels. Sam and Suzy fish, set up camp, and dance to Francoise Hardy. They also stare at each other a whole lot. Jared Gilman, who strikingly resembles a young Gregory Peck, is terrific as Sam, who obviously would have excelled as a scout if he wasn’t ostracized by the other kids. Kara Hayward’s Suzy feels like a shrunken Margot Tenenbaum with all of her seriousness and heavy eye-shadow.
While the kids pretend to be adults in the woods, the parents act like children in their pursuit of them. All of them have their own issues to deal with besides runaway kids. The always versatile Bruce Willis plays the forlorn cop really well, especially in his scenes with Sam. The other actors are great too, but Bill Murray’s character is completely wasted. He spends most of his screen time just looking off into the distance as he does his best Bill Murray impression.
The screenplay, written by Anderson and Roman Coppola, is filled with witty replies and minimalist humor. Anderson’s films have always been filled with visual eccentricities and Moonrise Kingdom offers a wealth of them. The comedy excels when it’s visual: the escape tunnel in Sam’s tent, a motorcycle in a tree, etc. There is one hugely distracting piece of effects work near the end in which Ed Norton makes a superhuman jump. It looked incredibly silly and not in the good “dog wearing a top hat” way.
All emotional coldness aside, Moonrise Kingdom is a gleefully surreal, aesthetically amazing film with an ensemble of adults you can’t front on and a mini-Gregory Peck who will out-scout you. The film’s tone see-saws through darkness and light until it climaxes into a warm, fuzzy ball of absolute delight. The score is incredibly realized and helps weave together all of the technical gimmickry Anderson has mastered over his career. So go, dear reader. Go and fall in love off the coast of New England.- Patrick Cooper