REVIEW: Moonrise Kingdom [2012]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 94 minutes | Release Date: June 29th, 2012 (USA)
Studio: Focus Features
Director(s): Wes Anderson
Writer(s): Wes Anderson & Roman Coppola

“He left me a letter of resignation”

Five years removed from his last foray into live action filmmaking—although Fantastic Mr. Fox is much more akin to his sensibilities than a normal animated children’s movie should be—writer/director Wes Anderson returns with what could be his most storybook piece yet. So far removed from our reality, Moonrise Kingdom fits firmly into the auteur’s world of meticulously detailed constructions and manufactured quirk. Subtly surreal in its tale of lost innocence, the characters populating the small island of New Penzance exist on the fringes with few friends, little respect, and a whole lot of rebellion. Caught up in the turmoil of two ’emotionally disturbed’ children running away along the Old Chickchaw Harvest Migration Trail, Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy’s (Kara Hayward doing a young Margot Tenenbaum) ability to find true joy uncovers the deficiencies of a depression-laden authority class resigned to never attaining it themselves.

Beginning with carefully composed pans throughout the dollhouse-like Bishop residence, we’re introduced to the family while “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” plays on a portable record player. A very old looking couple in a constant state of silence sits alone while their children gather in a playroom to listen, read, and pass time. Suzy is shown in every room, on the roof, and wherever else she can physically go with a pair of binoculars firmly pressed to her eyes. Always looking beyond her house on Summer’s End, she awaits a time when she may escape the pressures of adolescence and the looks of disappointment thrown her way by parents and teachers alike. Most reminiscent to The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou before it, the sterility of our slow transit through a cross-section of the home familiarizes us with the Bishops as well as the calculated tone to follow.

Bob Balaban arrives as a narrator with animated maps and a keen sense of what’s to unfold as he orates the island’s history as well as upcoming events that will prove crucial to the characters’ interactions. With the infamous 1965 Black Beacon Storm soon to ravage New Penzance with torrential rain, floods, and lightning, watching Suzy and Sam run off into the wilderness unknowing of Mother Nature’s fury builds suspense alongside the eccentric—and possibly off-putting—comedy on display. With an infinite wealth of pettiness between the adults trying hard to pass blame for their failures at reining these children in, the awkwardly mature love growing between the very young couple is what gives us hope. Lost in a sea of kids blindly doing what they’re told, Sam and Suzy discover they must leave the emotional prisons erected around them behind.

They aren’t the only ones trapped in a world that doesn’t understand them, however. Lawyers Walt (Bill Murray) and Laura Bishop (Frances McDormand) are stuck in a loveless marriage surviving only for their offspring; Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) has trouble reconciling his desire for love and companionship with a job placing him forever vigilant and responsible for the safety of the whole island; and Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton) finds it hard to maintain a balance of leadership and friendship with the troop of boys he’s been tasked to educate and watch over. Each becomes so wrapped up in their own emotional baggage that none could ever hope to ‘fix’ the troubles of those under their care. More immature than anyone else in the film, Moonrise Kingdom becomes their quest to learn understanding as much as Sam and Suzy’s adventure away from childhood.

Anderson and co-writer Roman Coppola put their characters on a collision course with destruction. The more the grown-ups delegate rules and threats, the more confident these youngsters are to want to break-free and police themselves. Despite a plea for non-violence from Scout Master Ward, his Khaki Scouts have for all intents and purposes been trained for war. Later deputized by Sharp to widen the search between Summer’s End and Camp Ivanhoe for the missing children, a militaristic approach is adopted and the scouts appear out for blood. Between their vicious pursuit and the runaways’ relationship pushing way beyond the constraints their age should generally allow, all innocence is lost as each gets embroiled in a darkly humorous manhunt uncomfortably juxtaposed against the stylistic whimsy.

Despite the hardships of youth, Sam and Suzy will do anything to be together—two kindred spirits with nothing of worth besides each other. Authentic performances by both, Hayward and Gilman’s calm composure in their search for autonomy helps project a maturity all but absent from the emotionally stunted actions of those looking to tear them apart. Their unwavering determination helps us understand Murray’s anger manifesting into futility; Norton’s by-the-books service morphing into a looser translation of the rules to become someone able to get through a never-ending series of crises; and Willis moving from manipulable stooge to a man of compassionate strength letting a long-dormant heroism shine forth. The love between these prepubescent youths gradually awakens the degenerating populace of parental figures from the stagnancy of ignoring problems in hopes they’ll go away.

A civil servant with an unwavering sense of power in Tilda Swinton‘s Social Services and the easily agreeable opportunist of Jason Schwartzman‘s Cousin Ben rounds out the adult cast, but it’s really the boys portraying an older than their years Khaki Scout troop that steals the show. Covertly disobeying orders, it’s their sense of kinship with a disenfranchised ‘brother’ that turns Moonrise Kingdom from jadedly depressing parable into a coming-of-age fairy tale able to instill change. Everything you love (or hate) about Anderson is included—perhaps even exponentially increased to their most hyper-real—so definitely don’t think this film will change your mind as far as the auteur’s oeuvre is concerned. But for those of you who smile in response to his unique sensibilities, you’ll enjoy this newest foray into the emotional psyches of damaged souls.

[1] (l to r.) Newcomers Kara Hayward as Suzy and Jared Gilman as Sam in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, a Focus Features release. Courtesy of Focus Features
[2] (l to r.) Bill Murray as Mr. Bishop, Frances McDormand as Mrs. Bishop, Edward Norton as Scout Master Ward, and Bruce Willis as Captain Sharp in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, a Focus Features release. Courtesy of Focus Features
[3] (l to r.) Kara Hayward as Suzy, Jared Gilman as Sam, and Jason Schwartzman as Cousin Ben in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, a Focus Features release. Credit: Niko Tavernise

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