As a filmmaker, Wes Anderson is usually defined by the unique visual style of his films and the idiosyncratic and eccentric natures of his characters. Part of hose eccentricities is the fact that in Anderson’s movies most of the times the rigid adults act like spoiled children. Curiously, in Moonrise Kingdom Anderson not only features two twelve year-olds as the stars, but to complete his typical role reversal these children act like adults while the adults around them act like children, making the circumstances around them all very, very funny.
Suzy and Sam (newcomers Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman) are two twelve year-olds growing up on a small New England island in the late 1960s who don’t fit in – Suzy with her three younger brothers and two attorney parents Laura and Walt Bishop (Frances McDormand and Bill Murray) and Sam with neither his foster family or Scout troop. After meeting at a church play the two become pen pals and devise a plan to run away together. They implement the plan when Sam is at Scout camp and their disappearance sends the island in disarray, including the search efforts by Suzy’s parents, Sam’s overzealous Scout Master Ward (Ed Norton), and the island’s lone police officer (Bruce Willis) as a deadly hurricane approaches.
The two unknown actors who played Sam and Suzy are so suited for their roles it’s surprising that they haven’t been part of Anderson’s common cast previously. Hayward, in particular, is like a miniature version of Gwenyth Paltrow’s character in Anderson’s The Royal Tenebaums. In fact, most of Anderson’s usual faces are noticeably absent: this is his first project that doesn’t feature any of the Wilson brothers, and while Bill Murray is here Jason Schwartzman appears in only a small part as Cousin Ben, a Scout leader who seems capable of doing just about anything for the right price. Yet all of the actors new to Anderson’s movies – including Norton, McDormand, Tilda Swinton, and Bob Balaban – fit Anderson’s acting style perfectly. The biggest revelation of all is Bruce Willis – every five or so years he decides to take a role that departs from his action persona and he usually delivers. Willis has fun playing on his macho cop image as Captain Sharp, a one-man police force who lives in a trailer and seems to spend most of his time fishing. But this movie belongs to Suzy and Sam who seem to be reenacting their favorite movie and television roles based on what they think runaways should be doing. In this sense the movie is very reminiscent of a young love version of Stand By Me overhauled by the Wes Anderson treatment, of course.
And yet as impressive as the acting is here, the visuals are what often separates Anderson apart. Anderson and director of photography Robert Yeoman (who has worked with Anderson on all of his live action films) have created a beautifully shot film with colors reminiscent of a Norman Rockwell painting and stellar stedi-cam work. In addition, how have all of Anderson’s films gone without Oscar nominations for Art Direction? Perhaps Moonrise Kingdom will break that inexplicable cycle.
So while the acting and visuals are beautiful, the film’s weak point lies with its story. Unlike his previous films, there are moments in Moonrise Kingdom that are completely illogical and seem to be excessive flourishes on Anderson and co-writer Roman Coppola‘s part (Coppola also co-wrote The Darjeeling Limited with Anderson). These nonsensical moments primarily occur during transitional scenes, as if the duo didn’t know how to get from one scene to the next. Since the movie is an adolescent fantasy I guess I could give them a free pass, but they did take me out of the movie and didn’t seem necessary. Anderson has made better ensemble movies (both The Royal Tenebaums and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou deal with much deeper issues and are thus stronger and more emotional films), but Moonrise Kingdom is enough of a different spin on his typical style that it’s definitely worthy of his past films. After all, just because it’s a lot more fun doesn’t mean it doesn’t hit as hard.
Rating: Yet another piece of evidence that Wes Anderson is one of the most unique and brilliant voices in film today (8.5/10)
NOTE: The movie is rated PG-13 for “sexual content and smoking” though there is none of the former unless you consider 12 year-olds in their underwear as “sexual content” (which nobody should). In yet another case of the MPAA ratings board being idiots, this movie would be just as appropriate and enjoyable to younger audiences and would be a wonderful way to introduce them to movies that are better than the usual kiddie junk at the multiplex.