Wes Anderson burst onto the scene with his debut film, Bottle Rocket. He avoided the sophomore slump with Rushmore, which many consider to be his best picture though I’ve always been partial to The Royal Tenenbaums. After his third picture, Anderson seemed to be spinning his wheels with The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited. They felt less like original works and more like someone trying hard to ape Anderson’s idiosyncratic style. If any director’s visual approach lent itself to animation, it would be Anderson, which is why The Fantastic Mr. Fox was so…well, fantastic. His foray into stop-motion animation may have rejuvenated Anderson as his return to live-action, Moonrise Kingdom, is a return to form.
Co-written by Anderson and Roman Coppola, the story is set in 1965 on the fictional isle of New Penzance, located off the coast of Rhode Island. 12-year old orphan Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) has a hard time fitting in. He’s a member of the Khaki Scouts, but none of the other boys like him. His foster parents don’t know what to do with him. It’s no wonder Sam forges an instant bond with the sullen Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward). She’s constantly getting into trouble at school while her parents, Walt (Bill Murray) and Laura (Frances McDormand), make little effort to understand her. It doesn’t help that Laura is having an affair with the island’s sole policeman, Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis). When Sam and Suzy run away together, everyone engages in a frantic search for the young lovebirds.
Their escape is more than just about finding their place in the world. It’s also about escaping from the cynicism and loneliness they observe in the adults around them. Despite the possibilities of doom and gloom, Anderson approaches the story with a playful nature and his trademark dry sense of humor. The romance between Sam and Suzy is imbued with a sweet-natured innocence that is accentuated by sequences that veer into cartoon territory. At one point, Sam is struck by lightning, but survives with nothing more than a face full of soot. A tightly edited sequence of written correspondence effectively sets up the romance and adventure to come.
Visually, Moonrise Kingdom is everything you expect from Wes Anderson, gorgeously photographed on Super 16 by cinematographer Robert Yeoman. There’s an aura of timelessness to the film thanks to its vintage look. Anderson meticulously composes every one of his shots as if he were painting a tableau. The sets open up as if they were a doll house as the camera tracks from left to right. One of the best scenes takes place at the Khaki Scouts’ headquarters as the camera follows the characters while boys in the background zipline, shoot arrows, and light firecrackers.
Music has always been an integral component of Anderson’s pictures and the soundtrack to Moonrise Kingdom is an eclectic compliment to the love story. In addition to original compositions by Alexandre Desplat, there are tracks by Hank Williams and Francoise Hardy. The film opens with a selection from The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra by British composer Benjamin Britten, which works as a child’s introduction to classical music. The piece symbolically represents the kids’ first steps into maturity.
The leads are wonderfully played by newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward. As Suzy, Hayward looks like she stepped right out of a French New Wave film with her chic pink dress, thick eyes shadow, and pouty demeanor. Bill Murray is back in yet another understated role while another Anderson vet Jason Schwartzman appears briefly as an older scout. Collaborating with Anderson for the first time are Ed Norton, who does a splendid job as an “aww, shucks” scoutmaster, and Bruce Willis. It’s refreshing to see Willis in this type of role because you forget he can really act when not trapped in another dumb action flick. His Captain Sharp is a cop that is the polar opposite of John McClane. Willis isn’t afraid to look a little pathetic from time to time, especially when he’s trudging around with pant legs that are too short. But, if there was any actor ever born to star in a Wes Anderson movie, it is Tilda Swinton. She takes on the antagonistic role of a character referred to only as Social Services, a looming specter of the Dickensian dread that awaits Sam should he be found.
The video is presented in 1080p with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Moonrise Kingdom just might be Anderson’s most beautifully photographed movie, shot on Super 16mm by cinematographer Robert Yeoman. The transfer captures the warm summer colors in gorgeous high definition. There’s a hint of soft fuzziness to a few scenes, but nothing that’s a deal breaker.
The audio is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. The sound runs the gamut from the subtle quiet moments, such as the dinner scene with Willis and Gilman, to the robust roar of the climatic thunderstorm. The soundtrack is mixed in nicely.
The lack of substantial bonus material is extremely disappointing. Is it too much to hope that there might be a more loaded Criterion edition in the works?
A Look Inside Moonrise Kingdom (3:07) is a quick behind-the-scenes featurette.
Welcome to the Island of New Penzance (6:11) is a series of short segments running about a minute with each one focusing on Wes Anderson and his main cast.
Set Tour with Bill Murray (3:09) finds the actor giving a brief rundown of the film while standing in the living room set.
Film Value: 8
Moonrise Kingdom was one of my favorite films from the first half of the year. It will doubtlessly find its way onto my year-end list as well. This is a tender and humorous love story that exemplifies Wes Anderson at his best.