As “Moonrise Kingdom” begins, a boy is listening to a record of Benjamin Britton classical music compositions intended for children. A high-pitched, nonthreatening kid’s voice interrupts the song to explain the intricate layers of Britton’s piece, and the boy appreciates it all the more.
Wes Anderson’s seventh feature film is much like this record: an art house picture pieced together and slowly revealed to us like an elaborate opera. It has characters, themes and a silly tone that a child could embrace, and yet its presentation has complexity and maturity that may be beyond most adults. In this way, “Moonrise Kingdom” is one of the wackiest, most inventive, and most notably, the most heartfelt film Anderson ever made. Here then is a movie about growing up, independence, living above your age and loving the beauty of the more challenging and sophisticated pleasures of the world.
“Moonrise Kingdom” is the romance fairytale of Sam and Suzy (newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward), two preteens who escape their parental care to elope on a hidden cove on their small island home of New Penzance. Sam is a nerdy orphan, the most unpopular boy amongst his summer camp Khaki Scouts (by a significant margin), and yet a skilled mountaineer and adventurer. Suzy is the oldest child in a dysfunctional family, and she’s at an age where her needs cannot be met by her two unhappy parents. The couple is tracked by the lone island cop Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), Sam’s camp counselor, Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton), and Suzy’s two parents, Walt and Laura Bishop (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand).
When Sam and Suzy first meet, she’s preparing backstage for a production of the story of Noah’s Ark. This is not the usual meet cute, and it’s hard to know what initially caused them to fall in love. Maybe it’s how Sam found her, stepping through the figurative threshold of a clothes rack to enter a beautiful world of love and nature. Maybe it’s Suzy’s heavy makeup and dark complexion to look alluring and sexual beyond her youth. She wears mini skirts and always slants her legs to show off her sultry curves, and yet she withholds a little apprehension that her breasts may not fully grow in. Their infatuation instead comes from a series of letters they exchange as pen pals. Anderson edits together a montage of their letters such that what stands out aren’t the details but the “Dear Sam” and “Dear Suzy” that make a person feel wanted.
As they march through the forest and up and down rocky slopes, Sam’s behavior and adventure is not ideal for a first date. And yet, their love is innocent and pure. We root for them, and by the end, their love will quite literally generate sparks.
The whole tone of “Moonrise Kingdom” is fairly gritty and serious. Children go missing, Alexandre Desplat’s percussive and operatic score accompanies their adventure and there’s a sense of urgency as the parents exchange splitscreen phone calls in an attempt to locate them. But a sense of childhood innocence and naivete always pokes through for a film that doesn’t just have quirk but genuine heart. Watch as Sam tosses a bunch of pine needles into the air to watch the wind blow, only for them all to fall randomly. The scene is silly – perhaps unnecessary – but we feel soothed inside knowing that this boy desperately trying to be an adult still has a little adolescence left in him.
The film is also as colorful and full of exuberant life as any Anderson film. Long time Anderson cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman’s distant framing and surprise edits and pans make for perfect visual punchlines. But “Moonrise Kingdom” stands apart from his other work. Practically all Anderson films owe a debt the French New Wave, but here he gives an overt nod to the films of the era while at the kids’ fantasy cove. The image’s texture gets grainy, the music turns to ’60s French pop, and the close-ups on Suzy scream Anna Karina. And yet for this reference to be anything different would be to ruin the hideaway’s exotic mood.
As the action near the end escalates into carefully orchestrated chaos, Anderson’s directorial touch creates something that is cartoonish, fantastical, inventive and a wonderful childhood parable of discovery and poetic excitement. Be it the lightning strike, the dam breaking or the tent exploding, the scene is notably low rent, but remains magical and full of feeling.
The performers most of all bring “Moonrise Kingdom” the hilarious offbeat tone it so deserves. Bruce Willis somehow finds himself right at home in a role that demands him to be in charge, and yet insignificant. Frances McDormand makes for a wonderfully relatable mother figure with great love and pity for her daughter. Bill Murray is actually playing off type as a hard nosed father, and Edward Norton shows unexpected tenderness. Not enough can be said about the maturity and simultaneous innocence brought to Sam and Suzy by Gilman and Hayward. And perhaps most surprisingly wonderful of all is a bizarre and out of place Tilda Swinton as a character known only as “Social Services.”
“Poems don’t have to rhyme,” says Sam to Suzy as she quotes one of her favorite novels, “They’re just supposed to be creative.” “Moonrise Kingdom” is wonderfully creative, and all the elements come together beautifully. Because this movie has more heart and poetry than any of Anderson’s films since “Rushmore,” it’s an art house film that is accessible and lovely without sacrificing style. It’s one of the finest movies of the year.