A film review by Craig J. Koban July 11, 2012

RANK:  #12


2012, PG-13, 94 mins.


Sam: Jared Gilman / Suzy: Kara Hayward / Capt. Sharp: Bruce Willis / Ward: Edward Norton / Mr. Bishop: Bill Murray / Mrs. Bishop: Frances McDormand / Social Services: Tilda Swinton / Cousin Ben: Jason Schwartzman / The Narrator: Bob Balaban / Pierce: Harvey Keitel

Directed by Wes Anderson / Written by Roman Coppola and Anderson.

The standard complaint about Wes Anderson’s films is that his deliberate and idiosyncratic formalism as a cinematic stylist has often suffocated his characters and sense of emotional resonance.  Those same critics also lament about how the Texas-born director’s efforts don’t seem to occupy a normal plane of reality, which, in turn, also stilts our emotional connection to the personas that populate his films. 

I think that MOONRISE KINGDOM – Anderson’s seventh feature film behind the camera – is an answer to that type of scrupulous analysis.  Anderson has always been one of the pre-eminent visualists of the movies: he uses a methodical sense of design in every frame; smooth and precisely mannered camera setups, pans and compositions; and upon those layers of eccentric and structured inventiveness resides a storybook quality to his films. To some degree or another, the worlds he creates don’t fit neatly into our shared reality because they occupy their own unreality: he concocts ethereal places that are familiar, but almost fantastical at the same time.  To top all of that off, Anderson coats on a dry, deadpan wit on his films; they’re often funny because they never try to be.

MOONRISE KINGDOM – scripted by Anderson and Roman Coppola – is the director’s best film because he carries forward all of his loving attention to the technical details that make his films so invitingly offbeat – this is arguably his most beautifully rendered work – but it more importantly shows more genuine and heartfelt fondness towards its characters, two young adolescents that discover their love for one another in all forms sweet and awkward.  Like many of his past efforts, MOONRISE KINGDOM has a fable, dreamlike quality to it, but it’s spot-on in terms of relaying what having a crush and being in love is like for young people.  The film has an extraordinary attention to craft, but it never absconds from focusing on its precocious youth characters and the oftentimes tongue-tied spontaneity of their growing affection for one another.

The year is 1965 and the film takes place in a fictitious and moderately populated island off the coast of New England named Penzance Island (we given much in the way of geographical and historical particulars of the location from a humorously cheeky Bob Balaban, who breaks the fourth wall in various vignettes sprinkled through the film that feel like mini-documentaries in their own right).  We are introduced to Sam (Jared Gilman), a 12-year old orphan that wears – alongside his scout uniform - large, thick-rimmed glasses that would make TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY’s George Smiley envious. He’s a member of the “Khaki Scouts of America” that’s headed up by his leader, Scout Master Ward (a pitch perfectly dweeby Edward Norton).  Ward runs the caravan with the precision of a military general, as is shown in one virtuoso sequence where Anderson – along with his long-time cinematographer, Robert Yeoman - lets his camera linger on a swift dolly pan (one of many) that shows just how tight of a ship that he runs.



Sam is a great scout, but he’s growing increasingly disinterested in it, primarily because he’s fallen in love with the red haired and perpetually blue-eye-shadowed Suzy (Kara Hayward).  They met a year earlier – as all young lovers do – when she was a performer in a church opera production of Noye’s Fludde by Benjamin Britten, and they have remained the best of pen pals ever since.  She lives with her lawyer parents, Walt (Anderson alumni Bill Murray) and Laura (Frances McDormand), and her three little brothers.  Suzy’s parents grow increasingly weary in terms of dealing with her (she wears makeup, reads peculiar fantasy fiction, and – gasp! – likes to listen to records).  They have no idea that she has a friend in Sam.  One day she decides to run away from home to meet him – he goes AWOL from the scouts – on a mutually planned romantic excursion of the island to a secret point that they dub Moonrise Kingdom.  Suzy’s parents, in turn, team up with Scout Master Ward and the local police chief (played by a never-been-looser Bruce Willis) to locate the pair.

This is as flawlessly and painstakingly designed of a film as any Anderson has envisioned.  The one thing that I have grown to appreciate about each one of his new films is how he shows a rigorous attention to every single detail – clothing, props, buildings, scenery, color schemes, the placement of characters and objects within the frame, etc. – to makes his films evoke a transformative aura of being in a different time and place.  Anderson uses evocative and painstaking camera moves – especially in a brilliantly orchestrated introductory sequence where he allows the camera to seamlessly pan from one corner of Suzy’s house to the next with a flawless ease – to give the film its peculiar texture.  On top of its superlative set design, Anderson allows for the island itself to become an involved character: its replete with beautiful coastlines, endless blue skies, warm sepia and earth tones, and an overarching sense of endless starry-eyed allure; it’s no wonder that its two youths fall for one another while traversing its every corner.

I found myself more drawn to the characters in MOONRISE KINGDOM than in any other Anderson film; the casting of the child actors here is utterly thankless, considering that they have to both display a maturity beyond their years, a proficiency with evoking that droll and underplayed Anderson-ian dialogue, and project an innocence and vulnerability at the same time.  Take one key moment in the film, where the two – stripped down to their underwear after an enjoyable swim – dance to one of Suzy’s 45 rpm records and then come together for their first kiss.  If done incorrectly or without any sensitive tact, the scene could have been exploitative of the child actors.  Yet, Anderson creates an uncommon intimacy and sense of uncomfortable unease between the young performers here that will make many in the audience remember their first time embracing a member of the opposite sex.  The central follow-through of the film is to show their love develop – tenderly, warts and all – with a heart-warming accuracy.

The other performances are reliably excellent: Murray can muster up a melancholic deadpan delivery better than any other actor, which makes him a perfect compliment to any Anderson endeavor; Norton, McDormand, Willis, and Tilda Swinton (who shows up late in the film playing a character called Social Services) also understand that their performances are amusing when they play things absolutely straight to avoid any distracting, camera mugging habits (these are broad characters, to be sure, but they’re rarely played that way).  The film culminates with all of the conflicting characters intersecting during a massive flood and lightning storm that just may be a bit too chaotically orchestrated for its own good.  Thankfully, it never distracts from the narrative journey that leads up to it.

There will still be those that will refuse to see MOONRISE KINGDOM because of the way they consider Anderson’s past films to be dramatically inaccessible because they’re so strangely quirky.  If anything, the film shows the director ripening with a newfound self-assurance and maturation: all of the trademark Anderson elements are all here for his steadfast devotees, but the real sublime pleasure of MOONRISE KINGDOM is how it gives us a touching portal into the mindsets of its young characters discovering non-platonic love for the first time.  He paints Suzy and Sam’s relationship with gentleness, but he does not slavishly sugarcoat it (the child performers are likeable, but never to the point of groan-inducing cuteness).  MOONRISE KINGDOM is equal parts exquisite to visually engage in and lovely for its human story, the latter trait that most other Anderson films seem to fall short on. 

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