Movie Review: Moonrise Kingdom

By Matthew Huntley

June 5, 2012

Everyone in this picture looks 15 years older than they really are.

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Moonrise Kingdom is great filmmaking combined with not-so-great storytelling. Had director Wes Anderson imbued his film with as much substance as he does style, this would have been a veritable masterpiece. But Anderson, one of the modern cinema’s most original visionaries, allows his presentation to cast too wide a shadow over his characters and nuance. Oh, it’s a beautiful presentation, dreamlike and mesmerizing, but it’s so vast that it limits the movie to only being a superficial pleasure instead of an emotionally or humorously resonating one.

Not that the film isn’t worth seeing, even in theaters, where viewers are more likely to appreciate its vivid cinematography and striking production design. Anderson has once again employed Robert D. Yeoman as his director of photography, who, along with production designer Adam Stockhausen and art director Gerald Sullivan, has created a world unlike any other we’ve seen in the movies, or at least in recent memory. Like many Wes Anderson films, the primary colors - notably the greens, the yellows and the reds - pop out at us and present a fantastical world that feels playful and make-believe, yet also palpable. I’m sure there are many optical illusions on-screen, but I didn’t notice any flagrant computer-generated effects, which allows the film a more natural, tangible depth and, with its outdoor locales, lets us recall those moments from childhood when we played outside, particularly in the woods, where we believed we could escape and run away with just our suitcases in hand.

Given the film’s lighthearted tone and design, it’s fitting the central story is coming-of-age, a tale of love between two 12-year-olds, each of whom struggles to find someone to understand and accept them. The year is 1965 and the place is New Penzance Island, which sits just west of New England. It’s a pleasant but forgotten chunk of land that’s 16 miles long and has no paved roads, though there are plenty of foot trails, as we’re informed by film’s narrator (Bob Balaban). The prepubescent boy, Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman), is an ex-member of the Khaki Scouts. He escapes in the middle of the night but assures Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton) it wasn’t his fault.


Sam’s plan is to meet Suzy (Kara Hayward), the oldest child and only daughter of Walt and Laura Bishop (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), a pair of lawyers who are idly waiting out their loveless marriage. Laura feels compelled to address her family with a blow horn, and given her husband’s lack of enthusiasm, we can understand why she’s having an affair with Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), the island’s kind and sensitive policeman who’s perhaps sadder than she is. Maybe that’s why she’s attracted to him.

Ironically, all the adults consider Sam and Suzy to be emotionally disturbed, even though it’s clear they’re the most normal characters in the movie. After they discover the kids have been pen pals for a year and were planning to run away together for quite some time, Scout Master Ward teams up with Captain Sharp to find them. He gathers the other troops and organizes a search and rescue party. Sam and Suzy resist, however, and, at one point, things turn violent, although on a darkly comic level. As the film builds toward its climax, we wonder whether the story will end tragically or romantically. Luckily Anderson and his writing partner, Roman Coppola, make both outcomes a possibility.

If there’s one thing we can count on when watching a Wes Anderson movie, it’s that we never know what turns it’s going to take, and Moonrise Kingdom is no different. If Anderson had his own genre, it would be the only one you could categorize this film into. It embraces the director’s usual touches, including deadpan characters; unaffected dialogue; dark comedy; and suggestive violence.

All these elements are entertaining and hold our attention, but there comes a point when they’re no longer novel and we wish the film’s artifice and frivolity would be replaced by a greater sense of truth, when the characters would no longer be putting on an act and actually have a conversation that doesn’t sound like written dialogue. That’s especially true of the two young leads, who fit the look of two naïve kids on the brink of a painful adolescence, but who don’t necessarily behave like them.

Take, for instance, the scene when Sam and Suzy end up on the beach together. This would have been a golden opportunity for them to talk openly and honestly with each other about life and their current situations, like real people instead of characters in a movie. But the film opts out of it and instead goes for awkward, dry humor, and so Sam and Suzy never seem fully genuine. Part of the issue may be Anderson over-directing his young cast instead of letting them be themselves. Everything they do, from the way they stand, point and talk, comes off as if they were given instructions. They don’t seem natural.

This is a shame because Moonrise Kingdom feels like very personal project for the filmmaker, but it lacks heart. If Anderson expects us to invest in these characters, there has to be greater emotion conveyed, which you think would have been easy. One scene is all it takes, as he showed us in The Royal Tenenbaums, and because the rest of the movie is so well made, we feel it deserves it.

Even so, we can consider the film a hollow treasure, not least because we can imagine ourselves watching it many time over, if only to look at and relish in its atmosphere and kookiness. It’s a movie busting with life on the outside, even though it leaves us feeling somewhat cold and empty on the inside.



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