While the conclusion was a bit mishandled, Moonrise Kingdom remains – for the most part – a gem of a film.
When I reviewed Fantastic Mr. Fox a few years back, I (at the time) considered myself in the camp of those who don’t care for director Wes Anderson’s brand of filmmaking. With Fantastic Mr. Fox Anderson clearly turned a corner, marrying his high-brow focus with a bit of child’s play, to create something at once youthful and fun, while still insightful and witty on an adult level. Moonrise Kingdom, I can proudly report, takes this new trend in the filmmaker’s evolving style a step further, and has only expanded my growing respect of the Anderson’s skill as both a writer and a director.
The story revolves around the romance of young lovers Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward). The pair live on an island off the coast of New England – a small world that is literally defined as being a ‘one cop car town.’ Sam (an orphan) and Suzy (the troubled black sheep of her family) instantly bond over their shared status as oddball outsiders, and thereafter, during the course of a year-long pen-pal romance, they concoct a brazen scheme to run away together.
When the children go missing, the various adults connected to them – Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton), dreary faced lawman Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), “Social Services” (Tilda Swinton), and Suzy’s academia parents Laura (Frances McDormand) and Walt (Bill Murray) – all try to mount a search/rescue/capture party. However, Suzy and Sam aren’t in peril – in fact, having found love and freedom, they couldn’t be happier. But two runaway lovers have little place in a world where “normality” is the status quo – even when that status quo life leads to deep feelings of unhappiness (feelings the adults on the island are all-too-familiar with).
Moonrise Kingdom covers the usual ground of a Wes Anderson film (repressed angst and/or dysfuntional families), but combines those elements with the youthful playfulness of Fantastic Mr. Fox. Aside from being visually gorgeous in terms of photography and cinematography (shot by longtime Anderson collaborator Robert D. Yeoman), the film has a Mise-en-scéne composition that is at once stunningly sophisticated and hilariously funny. Almost all of the shots contain some kind of visual gag, symbolism or iconography – often all three at once. Strip away the sharp dialogue and hauntingly beautiful soundtrack – which includes everything from orchestrated classics and vocal chorus arrangements to 1960s French pop – and you’d still be left with a film that tells a funny and interesting story through visuals alone.
The adult cast members are all award-winning/nominated talents, but they are asked (and graciously oblige) to take a backseat, so that the two young leads – Gilman and Hayward – can shine. And shine the two youngsters do, as perfect male/female physical and emotional embodiments of the oddball outsider – those luminously eccentric personalities who don’t quite fit the frame of “normality” imposed by American social ideals (and are arguably better off for it). The two young leads successfully carry the film on their shoulders, and make Sam and Suzy’s romance a captivating and cutesy affair (save for one sexually charged scene that might be off-putting to some viewers); however, they are also helped along by other young thespians – namely the squad of young (Eagle?) scouts sent out to hunt Sam and Suzy, who provide many funny and charming moments of their own.
The roundup of celebrated adult actors are equally good playing their respective roles, bringing the right pitch and depth to characters who could easily have dragged down the careful tonal balance between humor and drama that Anderson creates. Norton is especially amusing as the militaristic-yet-naive Scout Master, and Willis does a great send-up of his own action movie tough-guy persona by playing a cop who is a sad-sack of a man, rather than a badass. While their roles are somewhat less pronounced, McDormand and Murray invoke powerful (yet subtle) portraits of a married couple with a deeply fractured connection. Without spoiling things, there are some great appearances by other actors (i.e., Jason Schwartzman), who either poke fun at, or allude to their prior onscreen roles.
Anderson once again teamed with his Darjeeling Limited collaborator Roman Coppola (as in son of Francis Ford, brother of Sophia, cousin of Nic Cage) to write the script for Moonrise Kingdom, and the pair have done an outstanding job. The movie has lines of dialogue that are as quotable as they are clever, and moment-to-moment there are jokes and witticisms being fired off that hit on multiple levels of humor. Even in the few moments when things get serious, Anderson and Coppola skip melodramatic monologue and effectively cut right to the heart of the matter with some concise – but impactful – lines, which speak volumes of emotion and thought in just one or two masterfully-crafted sentences (see: the scenes between McDormand and Murray).
For all its good points, Moonrise Kingdom does end up stumbling over the finish line. Things drag going into the third act, and once there, the narrative focus and scene composition seem to get a bit muddled as the story moves away from the young protagonists, and onto the surrounding adults. While watching Murray, Norton, Willis, Swinton and McDormand sharing the screen together can’t at all be called a bad thing, their character arcs and interactions aren’t as engaging or interesting as Sam and Suzy’s wild romance. Things finally build to an overly-cartoonish and overly-dramatic climax, which feels even more out of place, given the tight control Anderson maintains in the preceding three-quarters of the film.
While the conclusion was a bit mishandled, Moonrise Kingdom remains – for the most part – a gem of a film, and clear indication that Wes Anderson is only getting better with age (in terms of both cultivating a fun youthful spirit and growing from his filmmaking experience).
Moonrise Kingdom is currently playing in limited theatrical release. It is Rated PG-13 for sexual content and smoking.
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