By Ian McCabe
Wes Anderson is back, at last, with the delightfully quirky Moonrise Kingdom, his seventh live action feature. Set in 1965 in the quaint New England town of New Penzance, it follows two fleeing unpopular young lovers and their ensuing search party of parents, the town’s police captain and the American Boy Scouts. It stars newcomers Kara Haywood and Jared Gilman alongside Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand and Tilda Swinton and received a limited cinema release on the 25th May 2012.
There isn’t a popular opinion amongst film fans as far as Wes Anderson is concerned. Rather, it’s more of a 50/50 debate, split right down the middle. In all likelihood, you either love his work or you hate it, provided you’ve seen any of it at all of course. It’s very difficult to be neutral. Nevertheless, regardless of your feelings, you know when you’re watching a Wes Anderson film.
Populated with an oddball band of characters, wonderfully understated performances (most notably from Bill Murray) and infused with defining qualities such as retro hipster design and trademark long wide-angle shots, Anderson has established himself as a unique film auteur with modest success and a cult following.
It has been five years since Anderson’s last live action film, the charming – but by his standards, disappointing – The Darjeeling Limited, which saw him abandon some of the distinct qualities which made his previous outings special. However, in 2009 he ventured into the animated realm with his eccentric adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox, producing an interesting mixture of high brow adult humour with childlike fantasy and adventure.
In Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson has taken that approach one step further, adding a childhood nostalgia and whimsy to his already idiosyncratic and playful grown-up live action world. Set in 1965 in the fictional New England coastal town of New Penzance, Moonrise Kingdom tells a tale of young love, naivety and adventure verses the often crushing realism and pessimism of the town’s adults.
Moonrise Kingdom is arguably the most Wes Anderson-ish film yet, a love-child between Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums. From the opening moments, the themes are there, from the simplistic set design and doll house-looking Bishop household to the throwback clothing of shorts and knee length socks, punctuated to the musical stylings of Benjamin Britten. Just over a minute into the film and we’re greeted with a 360 degree camera pan and a trademark voyeur view of the house.
The cast of bizarre characters are all here too, including the island itself, given an introduction and background much in the same vain as the Tenenbaums household and the Belefonte from the Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou.
The characters speak using quick, philosophically laden dialogue, none more typical than during an over emphatic scene where the Scout’s pet dog is accidentally killed by an arrow in the heat of a battle between the Scout troops and Sam (Gilman) and Suzy (Haywood). “Was he a good dog?” asks Suzy. “Who’s to judge?” answers Sam. “But he didn’t deserve to die.” The exchange is then followed by a lengthy beat, further accentuating the absurdity of what has just transpired and allowing it to gradually soak in.
Humorous absurdity is a central theme throughout the film, from Walt’s (Bill Murray) constant ominous injuries and the young lover’s awkward dance on the beach, to Sam being struck by lightning, only to shake it off without a care. Then there’s the central Scout camp depicted as a small village inside of a military base, with a mini moat surrounding the Scout Master’s tent. No one other than Anderson could create scenes and aesthetics of this nature, mixing drama with absurdity.
Haywood and Gilman do an excellent job as early teen lovers, Suzy and Sam. Suzy loves reading, spying with her binoculars and listening to records. She is considered a problem child by her parents and is expelled from school after a fight. Sam is an orphan who is wise beyond his years, or so he thinks. He’s also a scout in Scout Master Ward’s (Edward Norton) platoon and for some reason, no one seems to like him. Sam goes AWOL and Suzy runs away from home. They meet in the wilderness and decide to elope so they can be together. This creates a chain reaction of events for them and the other people in their lives, bringing out their own underlying issues with relationships and desires as they try to track the couple down before a storm hits.
The lovers do an admirable job holding the fort, but it’s the side characters who really shine. Norton is ridiculous but extremely likeable in his small shorts and knee socks as Scout Master Ward. Unable to keep his squadron together, they don’t respect him yet he cares for them deeply. Murray and McDormand play Walt and Laura Bishop, parents to Suzy and three other boys. They are lawyers who communicate on a purely basic level and sleep in separate beds. Walt is emotionally cut off from the rest of the world, constantly picking up various injuries and losing his temper at the drop of a hat. Laura is never without her megaphone or bike and is ravaged with guilt over her affair with the lonely and gentle Sheriff, Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), who lives on a nearby small boat.
There are also crowd pleasing cameos by Andersonite Jason Schwartzman, Harvey Keitel and Bob Balaban. However, the highlight goes to Ward’s young troopers, such as Lazy Eye, Lionel and Izod, as they attempt to hunt down Sam and Suzy before ganging together to try to save Sam from the supposedly evil social services, depicted by a single person in the form of Tilda Swinton. There isn’t one character who doesn’t garner sympathy.
As with most Anderson films, the plot starts slowly but gradually bubbles along and moves on like an old roller-coaster, with the last third producing some fast-paced laugh-a-minute moments. Like most Anderson films however, there are numerous needless filler moments and it doesn’t seem to know when it wants to end.
All in all, Wes Anderson has pushed the boundaries of his surrealism and produced one of his most enjoyable outings to date. To some, it may appear pretentious and lacking balance. Some aspects may even prove uncomfortable, in particular the beyond their years sexual tension between the young couple. If you haven’t fallen for Anderson’s charm yet, you’re unlikely to do so now. If you are an Anderson fan though, you won’t be disappointed with Moonrise Kingdom. It’s not his best outing, but everything is there to tick the fan boxes and then some. It’s possibly his most bizarre yet charming outing yet, even more so than The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou.
In a nutshell, it’s a delightful and mature comedy with plenty of childhood nostalgia. Upon leaving the cinema, the first word I heard was ‘lovely’. I think that sums Moonrise Kingdom up perfectly.
8 OUT OF 10