Every once in awhile there comes a film that’s so visually alive, so vibrantly acted, and so vivaciously charming that you can’t help but smile thinking about it and wish that you could see it again instantly; that, my friends, is Moonrise Kingdom. From his early masterpiece Rushmore to his later successes The Royal Tenenbaums and Fantastic Mr. Fox, director Wes Anderson has become a powerful and unique voice of contemporary American cinema. In many ways, Anderson is one of the most potent working auteurs, and between systematic camera movements, the use of primary colors, and a reliance on classical music, Moonrise Kingdom bears all the Anderson trademarks. This time, however, Anderson directs with such determination, such control, and such prowess that the film hooks you from its very first frame and never lets go. There’s really no other way of saying it – Moonrise Kingdom is a Wes Anderson masterwork in every sense of the word and way more deserving than its lone Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
When talking with a good friend of mine about the film, he summarized it as being a cinematic representation of a campfire story and that explanation rings extremely true, for like a great campfire story Moonrise Kingdom is both fantastically wondrous and morally grounded. As the film begins on the fictional island of New Penzance, we meet two children with desperately lost souls. The first is Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman), an ace khaki scout and ostracized orphan who is socially rejected by everyone, including his foster parents. The second is Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward), who, despite having a home and a family, feels just as rejected and misunderstood as Sam does. Through their similar angst the two bond, and after a year of being comical pen pals, they decide to run away together and escape their tragic lives – and yes, they’re only 12 years old! As you might expect, their disappearance prompts an island-wide search headed by the adults who, in typical Wes Anderson fashion, are just as chaotically flawed as the children, if not more so. Leading the search party is the bored and lonely Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) and the wacked out Randy Ward (Edward Norton), the Scout Master who runs the khaki scout camp like a military facility. Suzy’s distraught and disconnected parents (Billy Murray and Francis McDormand) also join in on the effort, which is made all the more dangerous thanks to an ominous approaching hurricane and the impending arrival of Social Services (Tilda Swinton) who could take Sam away forever.
Though the plot may be simplistic, its easy-to-follow structure is part of what makes it so irresistibly charming. In the hands of anyone else but Anderson, the film might’ve been too one-note to stand, but Anderson has such a keen eye for scenery and design that each frame of the film speaks a thousand words – it almost feels like a children’s book with an adult sense of control and storytelling ability. Even the ending, as the hurricane brings potentially deadly lighting and a catastrophic flood, could’ve been a campy, corny, eye-roll of a disaster if anyone else was in control; with Anderson behind the camera, however, the film escalates with charm and whimsical wonder, so that even when supernatural elements come into the mix, the movie doesn’t jump the shark for it has perfectly set up such a moral, heartwarming core.
The cast does simplistic wonders; can we just settle this right now and say that Moonrise Kingdom has one of the most incredible ensembles ever! From Willis to Norton, McDormand, Murray, and Swinton (a personal favorite of mine), Wes Anderson has assembled a dream cast and he uses them incredibly; instead of what could’ve been a clash of star-power egos, Anderson, rather brilliantly, underuses the actors so that none of them get really showy roles. As a result, each actor fits effortlessly into the larger picture and the chemistry that bounces off between them is sensational. Norton scores big laughs as the kooky Scout Master (his daily logs are a hilarious hoot) and Willis, with his quiet, whispering tone, sneaks up and floors you with his vulnerable loneliness; this is Willis like we’ve never seen him and, my god, he nails the emotionality of an isolated loner with unshakeable sadness. As the two newbies in a pack of legends, Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward impress and truly hold the film together thanks to their brilliantly developed relationship (their first kiss is so awkwardly and comically natural that you can’t help but laud Anderson for nailing such an adolescent milestone so perfectly) . Looking like a young, bespectacled Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Gilman speedily rattles off Anderson’s script in an innocently haughty that speaks to a generation of kids who think they know it all and have it all together. Hayward is a knockout too, giving Suzy a razor sharp edge to juxtapose her old, classic Hollywood beauty.
Perhaps best of all, and rather unsurprisingly, are Bill Murray and Francis McDormand as Suzy’s screwed up parents. Wes Anderson has long been fascinated with deconstructing ideal American values, and in Moonrise Kingdom, Murray and McDormand are the means through which we see an ideal middle class couple lose their sense of love and connection. One scene, in which Murray and McDormand lie in separate beds and talk about their fleeting marriage is a tour-de-force; when McDormand apologizes for some shady actions, her gaze portrays a lost insecurity that’s truly tragic, but it’s Bill Murray who tugs at the heart strings. When McDormand tells him to stop feeling sorry for himself, he quietly replies, “Why?”, and although it may just be one word, Murray’s face – with its sullen eyes, blank, motionless expression, and heightened wrinkles – speaks a hundred words about shattered dreams and failed expectations.
Ultimately, the film belongs to Wes Anderson, and between his extraordinary use of framing, color (the khaki yellow camp, the startling red lighthouse), and music, the film is like a jaw-dropping blend of Woody Allen, the Coen Brothers, and Stanley Kubrick – if that’s not high praise, I’m not sure what else I can say! Any proof of Anderson’s masterful talents can be seen in the films opening, which, in itself, is a mini masterpiece. At that point, we have no idea who these characters are and what they stand for, but thanks to Anderson’s framing, which traps the characters in their own house and subjects them to their own microcosm rooms, we begin to see just how disconnected they really are. Even when Suzy is in the same room as her three brothers, Anderson has her recline on an elevated couch that slices the screen into two distinct halves. This visual bravado is carried throughout the entire film and it’s dazzling – in a way, each frame gets you high off of its saturated colors and hyper-perfectionist set up.
I think that’s why I ultimately fell in love with the film as much as I did. Because Anderson’s style is so offbeat, so wry, and so different, it takes awhile to truly let yourself go and give in to the film’s magic. Just like the characters inhabiting the screen, you begin the film disconnected and not sure if your ready to commit, but slowly and surely you learn about these characters and they begin to win you over, and by the time Suzy and Sam are dancing on the beach to Francoise Hardy’s “Le Temps de l’Amour“ you can’t help but smile, laugh, and feel flat out charmed as hell.
Since its premiere at the opening night of the Cannes Film Festival last May, Moonrise Kingdom has been dominating mainstream independent film talk and it’s easy to say why: it’s a dream cast, working for a dream director, and together, creating one dream of a movie. To say that I love this film is a massive understatement – I adore this film, I am enchanted by this film, I am flat out in love with this film. You know you’ve watched a masterpiece when you come out feeling just as much satisfied and fulfilled as you are intrigued to go back again, and that’s exactly what happened when the credits began to roll; honestly, I can’t wait to go back and study more carefully Anderson’s frames and pay closer attention to Suzy’s book readings, which, as originally written by Anderson himself, are more microcosms into the films themes of love, connection, and fantastical amazement. Bravo, Anderson, bravo!
Article by Zack Sharf