Nothing in a Wes Anderson movie is quite like life. He creates odd, gorgeous miniature universes on screen, setting his characters in italics, so that they become characters playing themselves in a pageant inspired by their own lives.
The storybook quality to his films is either coy or entrancing, depending on your receptiveness to Anderson’s comic spark and his sharply angled, presentational arrangements of actors against some of the most rigorous design you’ll find in a contemporary American filmmaker. Within that strange formalism, though—and this is what saves his best work from preciousness—lies some wonderfully rich comedy as well as a sweet-and-sour sincerity familiar to anyone who’s seen Anderson’s masterwork, Rushmore, or his most recent picture, the animated Fantastic Mr. Fox.
That last picture took me a re-viewing to figure out, in terms of tone, and to fully enjoy, and for other people the same may be true of Anderson’s latest, the sweetly yearning Moonrise Kingdom. It’s a fable about what it feels like to be 12 years old and afflicted, from head to toe, by a romantic crush the size of a planet.
The film takes place on the (fictional) island of New Penzance, somewhere off the coast of Rhode Island. Our narrator and resident historian is played by Bob Balaban, who pops in and out of Moonrise Kingdom as we’re taken back to Anderson’s fantasy edition of 1965, a time of transistor radios and Tang but with no indication of what’s happening in the real world (Vietnam, for instance) off the island.
Young Sam, played by newcomer Jared Gilman, is an orphan who has bounced from foster home to foster home and now finds himself uneasily in a new situation: summer camp with the Khaki Scouts of North America. His troop leader, played by a droll Edward Norton with a cig in hand throughout, is completely on the ball in some ways and completely clueless in others. When Sam runs away with Suzy (Kara Hayward), Norton’s character must mobilize the troops in pursuit.
Frances McDormand plays Suzy’s mother, a taskmaster who never seems to relax, and who’s having an affair with the one and only local policeman, played by a tight-lipped and forlorn Bruce Willis. Bill Murray, who (thank heavens) has been in every Anderson film since Rushmore, plays the father, a retreater by nature, which makes it all the more satisfying when he chucks one of his shoes at Willis’ head as they argue about how to locate the missing children.
The movie includes what might be termed action sequences: a digitally enhanced hurricane and flood intercut with scenes from a Noah’s Ark pageant, a rooftop rescue, that sort of thing. I’m not sure how much facility Anderson has for that sort of thing. Also, while the kids (particularly Hayward) are effective playing cusp-adolescents taking a poetic leap into cusp-adulthood, that deadpan Anderson style occasionally comes at the expense (it’s deliberate, I think) of simple, directly expressed emotion. The second time through Fantastic Mr. Fox, I appreciated how seriously the film took the father/son issues and misunderstood-offspring angst at the center. Which is to say: just seriously enough. At times in Moonrise Kingdom, I had an itch for more.
And yet there is so much to appreciate. First-time Anderson performers such as Willis, McDormand and especially Norton fold effortlessly into the melancholy end-of-summer vibe. The script, which Anderson wrote with Roman Coppola, is a fanciful dream of a community finding itself, and a boy and a girl finding out all is not lost just because the first 12 years haven’t been terrific.
We make our own maps to the future, and even though New Penzance isn’t real, Anderson’s realization thereof makes this seductive illusion stick.
Moonrise Kingdom (PG-13) ★★★★☆