Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman explore Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom

Set in 1965 on fictional New Penzance Island off the New England coast, Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom offers up a funny and charming, child’s-eye view of the world as seen by a couple of 12-year-old runaways. Island resident Suzy Bishop is the sullen oldest child of a pair of lawyers whose marriage is on the decline. Sam Shakusky is a foster kid who summers on the island as a member of a troupe of Khaki Scouts with whom he does not fit in. A chance meeting the summer before leads to first love and the two launch into a year long correspondence as they lay plans to meet again and run away together. With a hurricane approaching, the pair’s disappearance sends shockwaves throughout the island’s adult community.

To one degree or another, childhood and family issues have played a part in each of Wes Anderson’s films. In Moonrise Kingdom, the kids themselves are brought to the forefront with the adults taking peripheral roles, but these are strange, uniquely Andersonian children. They speak in the same earnest deadpan that Anderson’s adults use, but they aren’t just miniature adults. They’re like highly observant children acting like they see adults act. When you’re a child, you don’t necessarily feel childish. Sam and Suzy and their friends are portrayed as kids perceive themselves rather than as kids actually are relative to adults.

To that end, Anderson’s quirky, deliberate style works beautifully. Moonrise Kingdom is not concerned with objective reality, but rather a child’s subjective take on the world around him. The intricate stop motion animation of Fantastic Mr. Fox was a perfect expression of Anderson’s attention to detail and his careful, diorama-like compositions and in a way, the child’s world of Moonrise Kingdom is a perfect outlet for it. At the same time, I have to admit that style is finally growing just a little bit stale. What used to feel fresh and engaging now seems overly familiar, and I say that as one who has loved even his lesser well-received films. Of course Anderson’s detractors have been critical of the style at least since The Royal Tenenbaums and they might find Moonrise tough going. From the opening side to side pans and tracking shots that introduce us to the Bishop residence laid out like a doll house, to the exhaustively art directed sets and meticulous costumes, to the careful use of music, Moonrise at times almost plays out like a clever parody of a Wes Anderson film. There’s even the slow motion shot of characters walking toward the camera.

Surprisingly though (especially considering the 1965 setting) there’s no British Invasion on the typically terrific soundtrack. Instead there’s a Francoise Hardy tune, quite a bit of Hank Williams and a lot of British classical composer Benjamin Britten. Combined with the original score by Alexandre Desplat (who worked with Anderson for the first time on Fantastic Mr. Fox), Moonrise sonically feels rooted in a slightly different place than Anderson’s other films.

As the focus of the story, Anderson’s child actors carry the bulk of the film. First-timers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward are an appealing pair who eventually develop quite a chemistry together. Again, these aren’t kids as kids really are, but as kids perceive themselves. Their struggles with first love are sweet and charming, but also have a surprising frankness. While Anderson’s other romantic yearners all seem to reach for something they can’t realistically have, Suzy and Sam are made for each other but are kept apart by circumstance. There’s a key scene camped out on a remote cove the two have renamed Moonrise Kingdom where it becomes clear they are very different (he’s an orphan, she wishes she was), yet in a way they understand each other like no one else does. It’s the emotional hook that carries the rest of the film.

The adult cast of Moonrise Kingdom meanwhile is populated by a roster of terrific adult actors including Bill Murray and Frances McDormand as Suzy’s lawyer parents, Bruce Willis as the island police captain, Tilda Swinton as (literally) Social Services and Ed Norton as the beleaguered scout master. Swinton has the showiest part, but Willis and Norton are the most poignant. Norton is especially good as a man who realizes that scouts is the thing he loves the most even when all evidence suggests he might not be so good as a leader of boys.

Equal measures familiar and fresh, funny and heartfelt, Moonrise Kingdom grapples with that awkward space between childhood and adulthood as experienced by two kids who have an especially difficult time fitting in. While it’s unlikely to convince Anderson’s skeptics to rethink their positions, it should be a delight to fans.

9 Responses to “Moonrise Kingdom (2012)”

  1. Very nice work here. Certainly this is the kind of subject matter that always has a good chance with me. I see the reviews are very strong, and the cast is quite interesting. I’ve gone hot and cold with Anderson over the years though.

  2. I’m at a loss as to how you’ll respond to this one. Even as a fan, I have to confess to some Anderson fatigue here on first viewing, at least stylistically. Thematically, I think it’s pretty strong though for whatever reason it didn’t engage me emotionally as much as my favorite of his films.

  3. This is one of the films I’m looking forward to the most this year. But I think I’ll have to wait a couple of months before I can see it. Glad to hear you liked it, Craig.

  4. I wish that I liked it a little bit more, but I have a suspicion it’s going to grow on me.

    I can’t imagine anyone who doesn’t already like Anderson not liking it though.

  5. It’s always a pleasure to read your reviews Craig. I’ve been a big fan of all his films and each has risen in my regard for it with repeated viewings. I’m interested to hear that you’re beginning to find aspects of his trademark style slightly stale. It’s a risk for a filmmaker who has a distinctive style that he continues to mine across his career.

  6. The irony as I kind of outlined above is that I think his style is particularly suited to this subject matter. I’ve always found it to be childlike (not childish)… it reminds me of obsessive little drawings I used to make as a kid or of elementary school dioramas or natural history museum exhibits… and it’s a great way to convey a kid’s eye view of the world.

  7. Yes, I love the careful placement within scenes of pop cultural objects that resonate a nostalgia for childhood obsessions with minutia. They also remind me of diaramas, as well as Joseph Cornell’s assemblages. The juxtaposition of detail, color, and pattern forms a visually arresting whole.

  8. I’ve been waiting for this one – have little experience with Wes Anderson (Tenebaums, which I liked a lot, and Fantastic Fox, which was good but not great IMO). This one – the kid stuff – interests me.

  9. Thanks for the great review! The Royal Tennenbaums has been my favorite film for years, and I can’t wait to see Moonrise Kingdom!

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