Set in the summer of 1965, on the island of New Penzance, a New England coastal town, MOONRISE KINGDOM tells the story of two 12-year-olds who run away together after a pen-pal romance: there’s Sam (Jared Gilman), an orphaned, pipe-smoking cub scout and social outcast, and Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward), a tall, glamorous redhead with a penchant for sci-fi novels and the music of Francoise Hardy.
The pair’s disappearance has a profound effect on the town, with Suzy’s parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), Sam’s scoutmaster (Edward Norton), and the town police chief (Bruce Willis) all joining the hunt for the absconded duo, with their adventure eventually having a profound effect on all those who encounter them.
Wes Anderson films are tricky to critically assess, particularly on the first go around; for one thing, there’s so much intricate detail in his doll-house-like sets and costume design that there’s a lot to be distracted by – as a result, some of the best jokes and moments can sail by on a first viewing. Also, Anderson’s films tend to be so uncompromisingly precious and twee, that if you’re not already settled into his uniquely offbeat rythym there could be elements than unbalance the film entirely.
MOONRISE KINGDOM, on the first go-around at least, feels like one of Anderson’s best films, his most consistently funny and interesting since at least THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS and probably since his 1999 high-watermark RUSHMORE.
It is, first and foremost, a sensory delight, featuring one of Anderson’s best and least ostentatious soundtracks – an unusual mix of Francoise Hardy, Hank Williams and Benjamin Britten is delightful and well-integrated into the fabric of the film.
It’s also the best-looking film of Anderson’s career – the Super 16mm photography gives the film a pleasingly weathered-looking grain, and combined with the film’s earthy colour palette, Anderson’s typically exquisite set design, and a warm, pervading atmosphere of permanent sunset, means there’s hardly a shot in the film that doesn’t look invitingly sumptuous.
It also has the benefit of an impressively assembled cast, all on top form– all of the adults are so good that it feels wrong to single any of them out for particular praise, although Norton and Willis both play against type improbably and brilliantly.
This is a story of young love, however, and in this portrayal of a nascent exploration of romance is where Anderson has achieved his greatest success with MOONRISE KINGDOM. Anderson and co-writer Roman Coppola have created in Sam and Suzy two perfect encapsulations of pre-pubescent arrogance, with their childish affectations of adult sophistication – Sam with his pipe, watercolours and self-appointed role as a great outdoorsman, and Suzy with her French records, parental rebellion, and habit of looking through the world with binoculars to “see people better”. The portrayals are as well played as they are written, and their relationship packs an emotional weight that seems unlikely in the film’s earlier, more whimsical sections.
That said, Anderson remains a much more confident world-builder than a storyteller, and there are occasionally sudden shifts in both tone and the narrative that don’t feel as meticulously thought-out as the film’s aesthetics – there’s some violence in an early scene that feels jarring, and some elements late on (such as an inevitable appearance from Jason Schwarztman putting the ‘camp’ in scout camp as a bizarre fix-it man-cum-priest-cum-scout leader) feel less fairy tale and more like nakedly manufactured quirk for quirk’s sake.
Despite the occasional hiccup, though, this is still one of the sweetest, most beautifully crafted movies you will see in a cinema this year, and another fascinating film from one of America’s premier independent film-makers.