For his seventh feature, Wes Anderson returns to live action – after the glorious detour into stop-motion animation that was FANTASTIC MR. FOX – with this whimsical little fairy tale, MOONRISE KINGDOM. Set on a sparsely populated, tiny little island (only 16 miles across with no paved roads), the film takes a loving stab at the romance between two twelve-year old outsiders, Suzy and Sam, as they run away; not necessarily from their problems – which they certainly have – but more so simply for the sake of running. This is the kind of film that revels in the idea that amongst all of the rigidity of life, there are still adventures to be sought out, found and enjoyed. And though there is a touch of melancholy sprinkled generously throughout the proceedings (in some cases, the story takes some surprisingly dark turns), Anderson never stops to abandon the general air of whimsy and excitement that follows these two (moderately) tortured souls.
What’s most impressive about MOONRISE KINGDOM is how unequivocally Anderson the film feels; after all, you have to have one hell of a unique visual style in order to transcend the medium itself and still be recognizable. Whether he’s doing stop-motion animation or live-action film-making, the visuals in a Wes Anderson movie are undeniably his own. Appropriately, large sections of MOONRISE – particularly the first act – feel almost as if we are gazing into a living, breathing diorama. Anderson’s sleek use of deep-focus on a flat, static image – almost as if the screen were itself a window through which we are gazing – is on full display here, and make for some absolutely breathtaking visuals. And as Suzy and Sam slowly make their way away from the mundane existence that they are trapped within at the beginning of the film, the photography begins to open up; while the interior of Suzy’s house is never framed in any way except for in delightful, dollhouse-esque images and Sam’s camp (led by Scout Master Ward, played spectacularly by Ed Norton, who brings just the right level of emotion and playfulness to the role) is practically an assembly line of singular, vertically-staged incidents, the great wide open of their wilderness adventure is free and uncontrolled. Anderson even sneaks in a little handheld camera work to really demonstrate the contrast between the two.
Indeed, Anderson and his entire production team must once again be commended for not only the beautiful cinematography, but also the impeccable production design: MOONRISE is nothing if not scene after scene of perfectly framed images amongst elegantly designed stages. If there was any director working today who I wish would take up the torch from Scorsese and bring a subtle use of 3D to their films, it would be Wes Anderson. These perfect little shoebox-sets, so exquisitely crafted and shot, are the perfect medium for the filmmaker to demonstrate the value of the 3D window – especially since he already shoots with depth and suggested, static three-dimensionality.
The cast is wonderful. The kids, played by newcomers Kara Hayward (Suzy) and Jared Gilman (Sam), do a terrific job of both demonstrating the quirkiness of Anderson’s vision and the emotional damage that these two characters have suffered. Their chemistry is undeniable, awkward and adorable in all of the right ways: just two kids discovering love for the first time, experimenting with the idea of sensuality and adventure more than experiencing it firsthand. And while they have lived idly by in (separate) worlds where uniqueness is discouraged and even something as silly as the Khaki Scouts of North America can be treated with drill sergeant style brutality, the idea of venturing out on their own to find adventure – something they dream of; both Sam and Suzy claim “going on adventures” to be the thing they want to do when they grow up – is something that they cannot deny any longer. Thus begins their tiny, insignificant quest, following in the footprints of the local native tribe, looking for some kind of escape from normalcy; and would be treated as such, had the rest of the characters not treated their mild infraction as something far more dramatic.
Therein lies the most interesting point of the story. Although our two heroes are treated as different and “emotionally disturbed” by the rest of the characters – both young and old – they are not alone in their desire for drama and adventure: as Sam “tunnels” his way out of his tent and the dogs are called (literally), every parent, Khaki scout and policeman in sight gives chase, practically reveling in the idea that something exciting could actually happen in this desolate place. The kids, taught to take on the utmost seriousness in their duties by Scout Master Ward (never just Ward), give chase in violent and hilarious fashion, brandishing homemade weapons in their pursuit of “the fugitives”. At the end of the day, everybody wants to play Cowboys and Indians – some just take it more seriously than others, to varying degrees of emotional and psychological complexity. And when Suzy repeatedly claims that people often tell her that she “goes berserk”, it isn’t because her sense of adventure is wrong, it’s just that it’s intense; the equivalent of the kid who throws a rock in a dirt clod fight, taking things just a bit too far when they’re caught up in the moment. Every kid likes to play at violence – some just can’t quite find the social line.
Also interesting is the adult cast, which is varied and wonderful: Bruce Willis as a sad police officer, Frances McDormand and Bill Murray as Suzy’s lawyer parents and Tilda Swinton as a necessarily cold social service officer (even Jason Schwartzman makes a last-minute appearance as a head Scout at “Fort Lebanon”, a link between the adults and the kids). All of them play surprisingly dark, sad characters in direct contrast to the pluck and spirit of all of the kids; who, regardless of which side their on, still believe in the game they’re playing. There is no line more telling in the entire film than when McDormand leans over to Murray in his adjacent bed (they don’t share one) and mutters, “We’re all they have”. And Murray responds with the only thing he can: “It’s not enough”. These adults, categorically judging their children as troubled and disturbed, are much worse than the kids are, and they know it. What these kids need isn’t just the jaded, troubled concern of their emotionally problematic parents – they need each other, and they need that more than anything else in the world.
Still, in spite of the dark undertones, MOONRISE KINGDOM is a delightfully quirky and fun time at the movies. And though the final act sort of goes a bit crazy with the fantastical and adventurous undertones of the story – becoming one rather than just riffing on the psychology of one – it’s still an absolute blast with a lot of laughs. The children are pitch-perfect, the emotions are true and story is heartfelt. Another victory for Wes Anderson.