Wes Anderson is an extremely lauded filmmaker in the Indie market. Renowned for his unique visual style, quirky characters and weird plots, he is what the French would call an auteur, his films are instantly recognizable from the dialogue, to the iconography, to the acting and the cinematography. Everybody loves him.
For me however, outside of The Royal Tenenbaums, Anderson has always struck me as an Emperor’s New Clothes filmmaker. Of his recent efforts, I was positively irritated out of my head by Fantastic Mr. Fox and The Darjeerling Limited was an incredibly pretentious piece of self knowing tripe. Going into Moonrise Kingdom I was expecting another film that was purposefully irksome. As I left the theatre though I found myself pleasantly surprised and quite delighted.
The film is set on the fictional island of New Penzance, which like many Wes Anderson products is an identifiable location but also a fantastical landscape filled with characters which do not appear to be of this earth. If we are to believe that there is the presence of extra terrestrial activity on this planet, the first place I would look would be Wes Anderson. The story concerns two runaway, emotionally troubled teens who are in love: Sam (Jared Gilman), an orphan from a scout camp and Suzy (Kara Hayward), a depressed young girl who has run away from her bizarre parents.
The two young lovers then set off an adventure on the island but hot in pursuit are Suzy’s parents, Walt and Laura Bishop (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), Sam’s Scout Master Randy Ward (Edward Norton) and the sheriff of the Island Police: Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis).
All the usual tropes are here, the pastel shaded visuals, the quirky and precocious characters as well as the whimsical storyline. As I said, I was ready to hate it. But, as the film progressed it became very difficult to resist its charms and in the end I found myself utterly enchanted and charmed by it. Many reviewers have stated that if you aren’t a Wes Anderson fan then Moonrise Kingdom will not win you over. I disagree, I think this is a lot more approachable and warm than many of his other works.
The fantasy of the whole film is very Anderson but as it is seen through the eyes of young children the conceit actually works. This fantastical landscape which is lovingly created becomes a childhood view of a mature world. Everything is heightened to a child’s reality, who escape into their own fantasy worlds to be free of the troubles in the world around them, hence the bright colours and the boy’s own adventure that Sam and Kara embark upon.
It doesn’t feel like Anderson is playing down to kids like he did with Fantastic Mr Fox, it invites an audience to view the film through their eyes and experience childhood like I presume Anderson and co-screenwriter Roman Coppola once presumably did. There is a sweet notion of nostalgia to all the proceedings, it is set in 1965 and there is a very personal touch that comes from the screenplay of Anderson and Coppola trying to recapture their childhoods and how they remember the summer when the whole notion of authority is thrown out of the window.
I was surprised at how funny some of it is as well, both the visual and physical comedy are refined and honed to a tee, purposefully opening up some of Anderson’s style to ridicule, which made me chuckle and smile. At times the script feels a bit irksome and it does go one quirk too far, the whole framework of Benjamin Britton and a performance of Noah’s Flood I found bafflingly pretentious. Furthermore, the visual ticks which we’ve come to expect from the filmmaker do call attention to themselves as a sign of showing the audience how unique he is, which I could have lived without.
For the most part though, Moonrise Kingdom it is utterly charming and the charm is mainly provided by the wonderful cast who have assembled for the film. The young kids, Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward are great, the chemistry is excellent and the performances show a very mature understanding of the material. They are difficult and precocious but the relationship between them both is nothing less than convincing and Anderson rightly allows to take centre stage and let the film be about them, despite the amazing supporting cast around them.
Bill Murray and Frances McDormand are brilliant as Suzy’s parents, both of them finding the right line between what real parents are like and the awkward oddness of their relationship between each other and their children. Murray is a seasoned expert of Anderson’s films, now having appeared in every one of the director’s films since Rushmore. He gets the beats of the dialogue and the strangeness of the character down perfectly. As for Frances McDormand, she is an always delightful screen presence, one of the best actors of her generation, and she can do this stuff in her sleep.
Edward Norton gives his best performance in a very long time as the suffering Scout Master who is attempting to retain his dignity and honour as a leader in the face of this troubled child abandoning him. It is nicely comedic performance from him and it’s clear that he knows that the best comedy is always played with a straight face. Tilda Swinton crops up as a character only known as Social Services and delivers a very steely and ice queen performance which we’ve come to expect from her, but she does it very well.
The standout however, and who I think deserves Oscar recognition, is Bruce Willis. Willis plays Captain Sharp, the town’s Sheriff. It’s the kind of performance we haven’t come to expect from him. It is a softer and a much more tender performance than we’ve ever seen from him before. We think of him as a burly action hero, but when he turns the dial down and doesn’t shave his head, he can actually become a very fine actor. I was reminded of his performance in The Sixth Sense, which was a far more dramatic turn. In the film he portrayed a very fatherly, parental role and the same is repeated here.
Moonrise Kingdom feels like a combination of Where the Wild Things Are and last year’s Submarine, only on much softer terms. It doesn’t have the emotional thwack of Jonze’s superlative adaptation of the late Maurice Sendak’s seminal work of children’s bedtime fiction nor the sardonic bite of Richard Ayoade’s awkward teen comedy, but it doesn’t feel the need to.
This is operating somewhere between those two poles and it is a confident work that fits into Anderson’s wheelhouse, emphasising the comedy and amping up the humanity.
Moonrise Kingdom will sweep you away with its beauty, wonder and undeniable charm.