Moonrise Kingdom opens with a shot of an immaculately tidy room in a quaint, old-fashioned home on the New England coast. Suddenly, the camera pans right on the perfectly straight line to another such room, with three similarly—and oddly—dressed boys. They play a symphonic record and sit down in perfect symmetry. It all happens in a matter of 30 seconds or less, but it’s all the time we need to identify the film’s director. Ladies and gentlemen, Moonrise Kingdom is a Wes Anderson production through and through.
Of course, many people will go into Moonrise Kingdom knowing it’s Wes Anderson, and as such, they’ll carry a set of preconceived notions regarding the director. For some, he’s a savior of American cinema. For others, a colonoscopy would be more enjoyable than sitting though one of his films. Moonrise Kingdom isn’t going to win over this pro-colonoscopy set, but ardent Anderson supporters will be thoroughly satisfied with what he has to offer.
The film echoes some of the themes found in Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show, namely that small-town life sometimes causes us to act in reckless or foolish ways. On the island of New Penzance, Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward) don’t fit in. The former is an orphan who excels as a Khaki Scout despite frequently butting heads with the other boys who call him “emotionally unstable.” Suzy, on the other hand, lives in a “traditional” home, but she’s short-tempered, and her parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) simply ignore her rather than give her the guidance she needs.
But Sam and Suzy find comfort in each other. Through a series of letters, they concoct a plan to run away and live off the land. Their disappearance, however, sends the rest of the incredibly insular island—including a police officer, Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), and Sam’s Khaki Scout leader, Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton)—into a real tizzy.
The film’s running time seems evenly split between Sam and Suzy’s budding love and the adults’ frantic search for them before Anderson and his cowriter, Roman Coppola, bring them all together for a genuinely surprising conclusion. History and expectations would tell us that actors like Murray, Willis, Norton, and McDormand would easily outshine their much younger and totally inexperience costars, but that’s pleasantly not the case. Hayward and Gilman are revelations. Anderson is unsurprisingly the perfect man to write and direct a story of this nature, which relies heavily on the viewer relating to these kids, their headstrongness, and pie-in-the-sky attitudes toward love. You do, but without the strong performances of these two youngsters, you wouldn’t have much reason to care.
That’s not to say any of the bigger names come up short. Willis is as good as he’s been in a while, and Edward Norton delivers Anderson’s wacky dialogue like he’s Jason Schwartzman or something. Murray and McDormand are fine, but their subplot is Moonrise Kingdom‘s weakest element. In them, Anderson attempts to show us how and why Suzy developed into the emotionally troubled young girl she is. But it’s not a stretch to just accept her that way. As such, the extended sequences with their marital problems in display feel unnecessary.
Alexandre Desplat delivers another great score for an Anderson picture (his second after his Oscar-nominated work on Fantastic Mr. Fox), and Anderson’s typically great eye for detail and shot selection is once again on display (you won’t find a film that’s looks more quintessentially 1960s than this one). From top to bottom, Moonrise Kingdom is an exceptionally constructed motion picture, but more importantly, it’s emotionally satisfying, quite fun, and in many ways, an ideal summer movie.