Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom is one of those rare movies that I would have been perfectly happy to sit through a second time the minute it was over. In fact, I wish I could have, because this is a film I don’t believe can be adequately assessed and written about on a single viewing. This is also a film that I approached with a certain amount of trepidation. As someone who considers Anderson a true American original and one of the top filmmakers of our era, I was frankly leery of the overwhelming critical praise that was being heaped on this one (even if some of it was qualfied and leaned heavily on that hateful word “twee”). I needn’t have worried. This is full-on Wes Anderson—and my immediate response is that it’s a masterpiece and the best film to come out so far this year.
So why the unusual enthusiasm for this Anderson film? Well, it’s certainly not a question of style. Moonrise Kingdom opens with one of the most Andersonian scenes ever, with his camera moving through the rooms of a shaved set to introduce the characters. It’s almost as if he’s deliberately inviting his detractors to kvetch about how he moves his characters around like figures in a dollhouse. I thought the opening was brilliant, charming and funny (part of Anderson’s sense of humor lies in how he shows things), but why this film played better for people who don’t, as a rule, like Anderson, I have no clue. Maybe the mitigating factor is that the story centers on children, and that the film is helped by a rather traditional climax. But who really knows? I’m simply guessing. What I’m not guessing about is how terrific the film is.
The film is unusual in at least two respects. Unlike Anderson’s other films that are set in a kind of wobbly present, Moonrise Kingdom takes place in a very specific time period, the summer of 1965. More, it has a stronger sense of deliberate autobiographical references than the others—or at least specific childhood occurences like the church performance of Benjamin Britten’s Noye’s Fludde and the discovery of the pamphlet on how to deal with a “very troubled child.” How seriously this should be considered is open to question, especially since the whole thing is distanced by being set four years before Anderson was born. And how important any of this finally is—especially in dealing with a filmmaker whose cinematic view of the world so often draws on a present that’s a great deal like the past, or like an idea of the past—may be open to question.
The story of two troubled children—Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward), who have bonded (mostly as pen pals) in their mutual outsider status, and decide to run away together—may perhaps relate to the childhood experiences of the Gwyneth Paltrow and Luke Wilson characters in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001). Here, however, that theme moves from background to the main story, and the bulk of Moonrise Kingdom is grounded in its account of first love and its mix of innocence and discovery. Truthfully, most romances in Anderson’s movies have a certain childlike innocence to them—and a childlike inarticulate quality—so it’s hardly a surprise that the children here often sound a good deal like Anderson’s adults, but there’s an extra level of charm this time. And there’s a degree of it all being something that audiences can relate to from their own pasts.
None of this is to say that there’s any shortage of adults with their own quirks. Indeed, the parents, authorities, and various concerned parties aren’t any more functional than the children. And, of course, there are some familiar Anderson players on hand—Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman (who might almost be Rushmore Max Fischer gone slightly wrong). The surprise is how smoothly people like Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Frances McDormand, and Tilda Swinton integrate into Anderson’s world where everyone takes everything—and themselves —very seriously indeed and are completely unaware of the absurdity of it all. Similarly, Anderson proves he’s just as at home with the music of Benjamin Britten as with Bowie, the Stones or the Kinks. Plus, the film has the usual feel of being something that might almost have been made in the 1970s. In other words, it’s very much a part of Anderson’s filmography. It’s also one of his best and most endearing works—and one I can’t wait to see again. Rated PG-13 for sexual content and smoking.