There are few modern-day auteurs as idiosyncratic as Wes Anderson. All of his films are showcases for his instantly recognizable universe filled with brightly colored uniforms, settings filled with odd items and furniture that are always arranged just so, 60’s-pop music on the soundtrack, and a den of odd eccentric characters that speak in short, staccato bursts of deadpan that comment on the world around them with a weird acceptance. On the surface Anderson’s movies may look too precious, suffocated by Anderson’s obsessively arranged, whimsical worldview. But dig deeper and you will find universal themes of sadness, isolation, and finding a place in a world that fundamentally doesn’t understand you. The characters that populate his films; the overachieving Max Fischer in “Rushmore,” the wannabe thieves in “Bottle Rocket,” the cavalcade of eccentric family members in “The Royal Tenenbaums,” “The Darjeeling Limited” and the underrated “Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” and even the dysfunctional woodland creatures in the animated “Fantastic Mr. Fox” are all examples of people who make up for their lack of real-world behavior with a sense of melancholy and the search for purpose and meaning.
“Moonrise Kingdom,” a profoundly strange, funny, sad and moving ode to adolescence and my favorite movie of 2012 (so far), is another example of that, one that finds Anderson honing all of his writing and directing quirks to a fine sheen and explores new, even more profound emotional depths.
The film is set on a small island in New England called New Penzance. It’s 1965, and two 12-year-old children: Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward) have declared their love for each other and after a year of planning via postal correspondence, they decide to run away from the island and start their own lives. These two come from very different backgrounds. Sam is an orphan who has just been kicked out of his foster home, and is the most unpopular member of the local Khaki Scouts troop led by Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton). Sam, with his coonskin cap and Coke-bottle glasses, is like precocious owl of a kid, and a classic Anderson over-achiever, with his love of topography and nature. Suzy has parents however, two hilariously self-obsessed lawyers played brilliantly by Bill Murray and Frances McDormand, who just see her as a nuisance. She is prone to violent outbursts and is constantly looking through her binoculars, as if to make the outside world look closer than it actually is. This sojourn is their means of breaking away from the restraints of their lives on this island that is itself trapped by the ocean around it, and the impending hurricane due to arrive in three days time, which we are warned about from a very informative narrator (Bob Balaban).
The lonely island cop, Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), who happens to be having an affair with Suzy’s mother, leads the search with all of the other adults to bring Suzy home to her parents and Sam into the custody of a representative from Social Services named…Social Services (Tilda Swinton) who will take him to juvenile hall.
“Moonrise Kingdom” unfolds like a storybook fable, one that is an ode to adolescence and how a small crush can be blown up to gargantuan proportions. This kind of story is tailor-made for Anderson’s artistic sensibilities. Robert Yeoman’s cinematography captures the lush woodland landscape and the earth tone of the color scheme adds to the ’60’s New-Wave landscape of the film, as well as Alexandre Desplat’s strange, occasionally operatic score. Anderson’s camera constantly glides across the screen, stopping to create his trademark widescreen dioramas that capture these characters literally in the middle of their lives, while the funny, buoyantly clever script by Anderson and Roman Coppola adds shades of emotion and experience to the desert-dry, deadpan lines of dialogue this ensemble was given.
“Moonrise Kingdom,” perhaps more so than any other film in Anderson’s oeuvre, is defined by small details that deepen the characters. Suzy, for example, tries to make herself look more like an adult, with the clothes she wears and the copious eye shadow she uses; it’s as if she can’t wait for adulthood to come and offer her an escape from childhood. Her parents’s marriage is so dead that they refer to each other as “Councilor” and only communicate with each other through legalese and notes from old court cases. Scout Master Ward is obsessed with keeping his uniform just so, and thinks of his job as a math teacher secondary to his current occupation. These details add to the dichotomy of the film, and the very thing that Sam and Suzy are running away from: the adults in their lives are miserable, and they’re trying to preserve the connection they have before it erodes away, even though the elements and some hilariously militant boy scouts stand in their way.
The acting in “Moonrise Kingdom” is excellent across the board, with Anderson veterans and novices perfectly dialing into the dialogue’s specific frequency. Willis does his best work in years, making Sharp a lonely, vulnerable man who learns to do something with his life. Norton does his funniest work in forever as Ward, making this guy who has devoted his life to the scouts slowly come unglued and finally question his station in life, and Jason Schwartzman has a great extended cameo as another Scout Leader that is another spin on his “Rushmore” character. But the soul of the movie is in Gilman and Hayward as Sam and Suzy. Both kids are wise beyond their years, and at the same time, hopelessly naive to what their future holds. Some may find the levels of intimacy that this relationship reaches uncomfortable, but it never feels exploitative. Moments of fear, recklessness, and outright joy bleed through the artifice, bringing some reality to rampant whimsy.
Like Max in “Rushmore,” Dignan in “Bottle Rocket,” Royal Tenenbaum in “The Royal Tenenbaums,” Sam and Suzy are trying to create their own place in the universe, sometimes against their better judgment. The adults have already given up on personal utopias for themselves. That is what makes “Moonrise Kingdom,” one of Wes Anderson’s finest achievements, both a fantastical celebration and a requiem for childhood innocence.