MOONRISE KINGDOM: Worth A Ticket – The Kingdom is Wes Anderson’s
Wes Anderson seemed to find the perfect vehicle for his particular form of brilliance with 2009′s stop-motion animated Fantastic Mr. Fox, a spectacularly designed, witty and surprisingly moving piece of jewel-like aritificiality. Unfortunately, Mr. Fox wasn’t a success at the boxoffice (only $46M worldwide), and studios probably aren’t getting in line to have Anderson direct their animated blockbusters. Anderson is back to live-action with MOONRISE KINGDOM, a movie as exquisitely put together as anything he’s ever done, the work of a filmmaker fully in control of his medium–and yet there’s something flattened and emotionally sparse about it. It’s as if he’s trying to squeeze his living actors into two-dimensionality.
Stylization, of course, is nothing new for Anderson. Although his epigrammatic dialogue can recall Whit Stillman and some of Woody Allen, and of course much of his content bears a strong whiff of J.D. Salinger with all its outcast child prodigies and searches for spiritual grace, he adds a remarkable skill at visual and aural design. This was breathtaking in Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, but for some of us The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou and The Darjeeling Limited saw their characters and plot overwhelmed by technique, and Moonrise follows the same path.
Moonrise Kingdom is structurally much simpler than Aquatic or Darjeeling. Set in the fall of 1965, it takes place on an island off the coast of New England whose main attraction is a “Khaki Scout” camp, supervised by conscientious Scout Master Randy Ward (Edward Norton). Among his charges is the sensitive, artistic 12-year old Sam (Jared Gilman), a foster child who paints, accumulates scout badges and is generally despised by his fellow scouts. Unbeknownst to any of them, since his previous summer at the camp, Sam has been exchanging increasingly romantic letters with his soul-mate Suzy (Kara Hayward), a full-time resident of the island, herself a misfit among her unhappily married lawyer parents Walt and Laura (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) and younger siblings. Sam and Suzy decide to run away together on a romantic idyll. They’re pursued not just by Randy, Walt, Laura and the Khaki Scout troop but by the lonely local sheriff, Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), who’s been having an affair with Suzy’s mother. Meanwhile, as the affable Narrator (Bob Balaban) warned us at the movie’s start, a major storm is heading toward the island.
Every shot in Moonrise Kingdom is worthy of being preserved as a screen-saver (the lush, precise photography is by Robert Yeoman, who’s shot all of Anderson’s films), and every camera movement and shift from regular speed to slow-motion is perfectly judged for a specific impact. The meticulous period production design by Adam Stockhausen (a Darjeeling veteran), from the wallpaper to the portable record player Suzy carries around, is comparable to the fetishistic perfection of Mad Men, with Anderson’s own brand of whimsy added. The music, an appealing mix of themes by Alexandre Desplat and Mark Mothersbaugh (more old Anderson hands) is, by turns, lyrical and martial, and as always, the preexisting musical pieces Anderson incorporates are perfectly placed.
Moonrise Kingdom, which Anderson co-wrote with another frequent collaborator, Roman Coppola, feels as though it’s exactly the film he wanted to make. And yet it also plays for very low, familiar stakes. The movie seems to come with it own set of footnotes to other Anderson films: Sam’s merit badges are like the clubs that Max Fischer headed in Rushmore, while Suzy could grow up to become Gwyneth Paltrow’s Margot Tenenbaum. Both Sam and Suzy are dislocated from their parents (physically for Sam, emotionally for Suzy), like almost all of Anderson’s protagonists over the years.
More problematically, the characters, while shaded with Anderson’s characteristic melancholy, are hemmed in by the film’s design. The hermetic isolation that beset Life Aquatic and Darjeeling is even more present here–any semblance of a “real world” hardly seems to exist. If you’ve seen the trailer for Moonrise, that 2 1/2 minutes told you everything there is to know about the characters played by Norton, Murray and McDormand, as well as Tilda Swinton as a bureaucrat known only as Social Services. (Willis gets a bit more of a story arc.) Even the two young leads are more affectation than fleshed-out humans, abstract ideas of yearning and lovable eccentricity rather than fully-felt. Max Fischer’s unruly emotions and the pain suffered by Royal Tenenbaum’s children led to genuine damage for themselves and the people around them, but Sam and Suzy exist like sketches of people, motifs in Anderson’s very specific concerto.
No one who cares about film should ever miss a Wes Anderson movie, and Moonrise Kingdom is a continual pleasure to watch, as well as often quite funny, with charm to spare. But Anderson has made enough Faberge eggs now–he needs to work with new partners, make a picture that takes him out of his comfort zone. It’s time for him to get off his island and visit the mainland.