Movie Review: Moonrise Kingdom
A Kingdom Unlike Anything Wes Anderson Has Built Before
By Tom Houseman
June 18, 2012
There should be a law passed that says that Wes Anderson should only be allowed to make films in which his protagonist is no older than 18 (with a loophole allowed for animated work). I know I am late to the game in terms of reviewing Moonrise Kingdom, and that the majority of critics have stated that Anderson's latest is a film that could only be found enjoyable by the auteur's acolytes, but I would like to vehemently disagree with that assessment. As someone who found The Darjeeling Limited tolerable, The Royal Tenenbaums abhorrent, and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou unwatchable, I can comfortably state that this is Wes Anderson's best film to date. But before you conclude that I am damning the film with faint praise, you need to understand why I loved Rushmore, and why I love Moonrise Kingdom even more.
Wes Anderson makes movies about childish adults, and when he lets them indulge their childishness the results are intensely obnoxious. But when the adults are forced to cloak their childishness by taking on the role of authority figure, the contrast between their attempt to act like adults while still acting like children is pretty hilarious. This becomes especially true when they face off against the children they are attempting to control, who tend to be more adult than the adults, while still acting fairly childish themselves; their childishness, however, is forgivable, even endearing, because they are, after all, children.
One trait of most Anderson films that I find frustrating is that his stories come off as wind-up toys: he puts all the pieces (the characters) into place, winds them up as tight as possible, and then lets them go, spiraling off into whichever direction they might fly. That is not the case with Moonrise Kingdom, which is a refreshing change of pace. Here the plot takes precedence, with the characters working in service of the narrative, rather than vice versa. The story kicks into high gear from the first frame, moving quickly and efficiently, creating a frame and then effectively filling in the details with important character and plot development. No time is wasted for self-indulgence, which tends to be a trademark of other Anderson films.
Of course, as strong as the plot is, without compelling characters it wouldn't be worth watching. The protagonists of Moonrise Kingdom are perhaps the most charming and endearing that Anderson has ever created. Unlike virtually every protagonist in every other Anderson film - including, and perhaps especially, Max Fischer - Sam and Suzy are completely free of pretension, self-pity, and the nagging insecurities that tend to be the motivation of every other Anderson protagonist. They are simple, passionate, and sweet, with a childlike view of the world but a very adult determination that makes them believe that if they want something, and pursue it, they can achieve anything. They are not adults in the bodies of children, which is too often true of young indie protagonists, but rather children with grownup ideas.
Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward are pitch perfect in their film debuts, and even their pitch is perfect, a monotone that is able to find humor in otherwise mundane lines. The grownups around them are of course selfish and insecure and at times oblivious - this is still a Wes Anderson movie, after all - but they all feel honest and almost never come off as obnoxious. Bill Murray of course wrings every ounce of comedy out of his character while never playing the laugh, a skill he has mastered, and Edward Norton is a delight as the clueless scout master, his wide-eyed stares never failing to amuse. But it is Bruce Willis, playing against type as a kind but reserved cop, who finds the most depth in his performance.
Anderson's control over this story is unmatched by anything he has done previously, but what is equally impressive is his control over the image, which also exceeds what he has done in anything except perhaps The Fantastic Mr. Fox. Anderson has created a world that seems to be pulled from a children's book, which makes the at-times outlandish plot feel more natural. He also infuses the film with an ambiance of theatricality, as if everything is slightly larger or more extreme than real life, at times bordering on surreality. This has the dual effect of making it easier for the viewer to be enveloped by the film, and also making the sillier bits of physical comedy feel more natural, and as a result hilarious. Most importantly, every frame, every image, seems carefully constructed, so you feel as if there is a purpose to everything you see on screen in any moment. Unlike most of Anderson's films, which seem to maintain a distance between the story and the audience, Moonrise Kingdom welcomes you with open arms, allowing you to fall into its odd little universe, a universe in which the stars are bright, and exciting, and so much fun to watch.