Review: Moonrise Kingdom

***originally written 27 May 2012***

You can tell a Wes Anderson film a mile and a half away. Make that 2 miles. Make that 9. More-so than any of his peers, Anderson has created and maintained such a strong visual style as to have almost become a genre by himself. All of his movies take place in a world different to our own; a world more formal, more colourful, more aloof and detached. Where many directors strive for realism, Anderson seems more content veering as far as possible the other way. This can make him a tough proposition for some. Twee like a Belle & Sebastian song. The sheer… Wesiness… of his movies can sometimes act as a barrier, keeping the audience at a remove.

This was certainly the case with The Life Aquatic (2004) and, to a lesser extent, The Darjeeling Limited (2007). Whilst both of these films have their charms, they also felt awkward and over-staged. Anderson was in danger of veering too close to the high school plays of Max Fisher (see Rushmore), constructing elaborate theatre pieces more concerned with their intricacies and cleverness than building a human experience. By contrast this approach paid dividends when he turned to animation. His version of Fantastic Mr Fox remains probably the only American animated feature film that I’d give an unquestioning five stars to.

But now he’s back to live action. Are things still a little off kilter?

Fortunately not. I can enthusiastically report that Moonrise Kingdom is Anderson’s best live action effort since his high-water-mark The Royal Tenenbaums. It has heart. Bags of it. And from 9 miles away you can tell it’s a Wes Anderson picture.

This time around our focus is on the curious island of New Penzance. The time… 1965. It’s a place where being a boy scout is quixotically popular and taken with formidable seriousness. Good-hearted but ineffectual Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton) discovers that his most troublesome youngster Sam has disappeared, right around the same time that unhappily married attorneys Walt and Laura Bishop (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) discover that their troubled and troublesome daughter Suzy has disappeared too. The kids have run off together. Because, bless ‘em, at all of 11 years old they’re in love. So begins a hunt by scouts, scout masters, local police officers and flustered parents to track down the young outsiders and bring them back into the fold.

All of which leaves Anderson with no choice but the rest a lion’s share of the work on the shoulders of his two young leads. Fortunately they’re up to the task. Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman are fantastic as Suzy and Sam. Their inexperience is happily masked by Anderson’s stilted, precise compositions, but it doesn’t take any kind of a leap on the audience’s part to root for these kids from the get-go. They’re awesome. Anderson plays on our fondness for the underdogs, the outsiders, and our nostalgia for the bittersweet pangs of first love. The two share easily the best dance scene since Pulp Fiction. So happy was I in their company that there was a pang in my chest when I realised the film was ending and I’d not get to follow them any further.

It’s a shame then that the impressive adult cast get such short shrift. Frances McDormand and Tilda Swinton are completely wasted talents. Edward Norton shows promise in an against-type role, but only gets limited screen time in which to develop. Most problematic is Bruce Willis. For the first half he plays so detached, so bland as to make you wonder whether he’s forgotten to act at all, reciting his lines without any character. Fortunately he ups his game for the second half considerably, and ends up one of the film’s finer features. Of the adults, only Bill Murray seems to truly sparkle (tapping his trademark misery-guts dry wit) though a brief appearance from the dependably quirky Jason Schwartzman is a delightful highpoint. Largely one gets the feeling that Anderson had a lot more for his seasoned actors, but (wisely) edited around them to focus on the kids. Nevertheless, for the first time, we have a clutch of characters who don’t feel fully developed.

But this is the only criticism I have. Everything else here is spot-on. The film is frequently funny. A play on the escape in The Shawshank Redemption is priceless. Watch out also for a brief encounter with a character named Albert. And if Wes Anderson is your thing, then there’s the usual minute attention to detail to keep you coming back over and over.

If, of course, Wes Anderson is your thing. If not, there’s little here that’s likely to convert you. Anderson continues to ply his particular trade in his particular style. Maybe even more so. But Moonrise Kingdom’s 60s setting fits the director’s sensibilities like a glove. The film feels old, quaint, a curiosity discovered on the dusty shelf of a seaside antiques store. Anderson continues to champion the things he finds cool, in the face of what is widely accepted as such. Good. Thanks to Anderson libraries are cool, writing plays is cool, starting clubs is cool, making marine documentaries is cool, riding trains is cool, and now being a scout is cool. And being is love is cool, too.

Score:  4

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