You know a Wes Anderson joint when you see one: art directed within an inch of its life in artfully composed tableaus; horizontal pans; dry yet informative narration; Jason Schwartzman being Jason Schwartzman; a chic soundtrack peppered with some moody oldies; a fantastic ensemble cast. His latest, Moonrise Kingdom, has all the trademarks that have made Anderson one of the most discernible auteurs working today. By all accounts, it’s also his most ‘Anderson-y’ film to date. After dabbling in stop-motion animation with Fantastic Mr. Fox, Moonrise Kingdom sees Anderson fashioning his most self-consciously mannered work yet, and that’s saying a lot. As such, it’s a film strictly for the fans. His naysayers who have yet to warm to his brand of quirk will be left in the cold. Shame for them.
Set in 1965 for no apparent reason other than giving Anderson license to ransack his record collection and outfit his cast in hip duds from the era, Moonrise Kingdom opens by establishing the world of Suzy Bishop (newcomer Kara Hayward), a 12-year-old girl with omnipresent blue eyeshadow who’s clearly at odds with her bickering lawyer parents (Anderson regular Bill Murray and the ever dependable Frances McDormand) and three pestering younger brothers. Unbeknownst to her clan, Suzy has plans to partake in a getaway jaunt with her pen pal and Khaki Scout Sam Sakusky (Jared Gilman), a boy her age, singled out among his peers as the “least popular scout in the troop.”
Together, they set out for a romantic wilderness walkabout, oblivious to the impending storm barreling towards their small island community of New Penzance, New England in three days time. All of this sends Suzy’s folks into a tailspin, and leaves Sam’s helpless scoutmaster (Edward Norton) reeling with shame for having let the boy escape under his watch.
The film’s best scenes involve the two prepubescent lovers getting up close and personal during their time away. They dance to a French ditty in their underwear and then French kiss (!); they stare matter-of-factly into each others’ eyes; Suzy opens up about her troubled family life; Sam pierces Suzy’s ears with a fishhook and makes her earrings out of two beetles. It’s all achingly hip yet completely beguiling in a way only Anderson can muster.
Things get a little messy, narrative-wise, when the three elders, with the help of a lonely island police officer (Bruce Willis), locate the youngsters and force them apart relatively early in the fable. In shifting the focus from the two lovebirds to the supporting players, Anderson and his collaborator Roman Coppola lose some of the magic and heart that made the first half so charming.
That’s not to say the company of Murray, McDormand, Norton, Willis and Tilda Swinton (playing the late-coming villainess, aptly named Social Services) is unwelcome (it isn’t), but the heart of Moonrise Kingdom belongs to the delicate bond Suzy and Sam forge over their short time together, one made even more palpable when taking into account that a boyhood crush of Anderson’s inspired the project.
Verdict: Anderson fans shouldn’t—and won’t—miss out on this tender coming-of-age romance and its hefty emotional payoff. If you haven’t charmed to his oeuvre just yet, Moonrise Kingdom likely won’t be the one to win you over, unless you give in to its whimsy.