From a live-action standpoint, Moonrise Kingdom represents a crucial gathering step for Wes Anderson, whose preciously fragile mise-en-scène has, over the years, gathered as many eager-eyed admirers as it has immediate detractors. Few people had anything nasty to say about the director’s entirely delightful Fantastic Mr. Fox, whose characters were as rich as the film’s stop-motion animation, but Anderson’s previous two works — the Bill Murray-starring The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and the India-set The Darjeeling Limited — were far and away the most divisive in his body of work, and, as such, prompted concerns of whether or not Anderson’s solitary aesthetic was being leaned on to compensate for narrative miscalculations. (Seriously, was anyone during the first hour of The Life Aquatic craving a 30-minute sequence involving arbitrary, knife-wielding pirates?)
But Moonrise Kingdom — judging from the positive Cannes buzz as well as the hard-to-deny childish charm of the film itself — seems poised for wide-scale approval. And it’s easy to see why. The film’s story of two in-love 12-year-olds, Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward), escaping into the New England wilderness to fully explore their adolescent allegiance, is both sweet and simple — the latter quality being the more crucial one. Indeed, the relaxed control of the narrative, co-scribed by Anderson and Roman Coppola, allows Anderson to devote excruciating precision to his formal signature. It also, meanwhile, illustrates something that should’ve been obvious all along — that the director’s dreamily boxy visual touch proves to be a perfect match for period-piece tropes. (In this case, the year’s 1965.)
That the film features the director’s youngest protagonists to date and still manages to weave such a satisfying ensemble is a feat that shouldn’t be taken for granted. It could’ve been easy for the story to lag when not focusing on the young-love chemistry of its leads, but Anderson is sure to make as much out of his supporting players as possible. For me, it was Bruce Willis, playing the local sheriff, who resonated the most — partly as a result of the actor’s balanced presence, but perhaps more so because of his endearing role in the narrative’s development. Edward Norton, as the scout-head whose troupe is tasked to locate the suddenly-absent Sam, comes second. He essentially won me over when he says to his scouts, shyly, that he’s Scout Master Ward first, and a math teacher second.
As far as the longtime Anderson collaborators are concerned, they’re relegated mostly to background business. Murray, who provided The Life Aquatic with such an affecting anchor, isn’t given a whole lot to do as Suzy’s father, while Jason Schwartzman, who did a terrific job leading Anderson’s second feature, Rushmore, is basically only given a single scene (though he does, admittedly, manage to squeeze a ton of humor out of it). Anderson newbie Frances McDormand, who plays Murray’s wife, has more going on, but her role in things still feels like an afterthought come film’s end. And then, from out of left-field, there’s Bob Balaban, who provides recurring on-screen narration. I’m sure I need say nothing more to convince you of his part’s bewitching humor, but I will briefly mention that his brightly-colored outfits quickly recall the baby-blue hues — and cherry-red hats — of Team Zissou. (Oh, and there’s also Tilda Swinton — as Social Services.)
All of these pleasing elements aside, however, there’s still something naggingly familiar about the film’s effect. This should, in many ways, be expected from a stylist as rigorously consistent as Anderson, but I kept wishing for the film to do something more — to really reach out and challenge its scope. That the closing frames are, by and large, as lovely as anything Anderson’s ever put together would normally be enough, but the repetitive, storm-centered climax that precedes them almost wears out our patience. Why spend so much time on the strictly narrative structures when what follows is leagues more moving?
As stated, though, I think this was the exact film Anderson needed to make right now. It provides a safe, swell return to the childlike rigor of his earlier work, and it cements ever-so-strongly his status as one of American independent cinema’s most proudly idiosyncratic formalists. At the same time, the desire for an expansion lingers, and it probably speaks to Anderson’s uniqueness as a filmmaker that I can’t precisely put my finger on what I want that expansion to specifically entail. All I know for certain is that, for all of its tender, unstrained pleasures, Moonrise Kingdom never jumped off the screen and surprised me. And I like to be surprised.
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