Director Wes Anderson consistently uses an immediately recognizable, easily parodied style—something that’s earned him a great deal of ridicule along with his success—so it’s rather sweet, honestly, that he’s sticking by it, haters be damned. No one’s going to kill his love of slow-motion tracking shots, rapid character-to-character pans, relentlessly symmetrical framing, and intricately idiosyncratic, dollhouse-like sets.
And although I’ve giggled over the sheer obviousness of Anderson’s signature aesthetic, I have to admit that I think it works in context, even if many of the shots look absurd in isolation. Anderson’s style serves his pet themes well. His movies dwell on loneliness and sadness, a nostalgia for a time that never truly existed and a yearning for what can never be, and the preciousness of the visuals provides an added poignance, a sort of Charlie Brown–style melancholy. It’s no coincidence that The Royal Tenenbaums (Anderson’s greatest film) goes so far as to include Vince Guaraldi’s iconic Charlie Brown Christmas theme on the soundtrack.
Moonrise Kingdom doesn’t reach the heights of Tenenbaums (which I consider a genuine masterpiece), but it does represent a return to form after the unevenness (to put it charitably) of The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited. Wistful and idealistic and perversely funny, Moonrise is classic Anderson. If you could never stand the guy’s movies, there’s no way you’ll make it through his latest, but if you consider “she’s my Rushmore” a beautiful tribute and start crying at the first few bars of Elliott Smith’s “Needle in the Hay,” Moonrise is a lovely confection, less bittersweet than its predecessors but just as piquant and delicate.
At the outset of Moonrise Kingdom, Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward), both on the cusp of adolescence, have run away together—Sam from a boys’ summer camp led by Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton), Suzy from the home of her unhappy, neglectful parents, Walt and Laura Bishop (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand). When the adults realize the two are missing, they summon Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), the only police officer on the tiny New England island where they all live, to lead the search. Meanwhile, a terrible storm is bearing down on the island, and Sam’s fellow campers have their own varying agenda.
That’s a normal-enough set-up, so it doesn’t begin to suggest just how weird Moonrise is. If Rushmore suggests that life becomes more strange and vivid when Max touches it, Moonrise renders everyone’s life in strange, vivid colors, to the point of cartoonishness, defying physics with a grand treehouse perched impossibly at the top of a single scrawny trunk and taking the of-no-real-time-and-no-real-place prism of Tenenbaums to even further extremes.
In other words, nothing about Moonrise is remotely realistic—nothing except the emotions, that is. Those are real. The contrast between Sam and Suzy’s naive mutual infatuation and Walt and Laura’s miserable marriage (not to mention Laura and Sharp’s miserable affair) is heartbreaking, in part because the movie doesn’t present the adults’ utter disillusionment as inevitable. In fact, the children’s dogged resilience inspires the adults to varying degrees, shaking them out of their malaise. The difference between the Captain Sharps of the first act and the third, for example, is subtle but it’s there, and it’s that kind of quiet transformation that makes the movie so affecting.
The fine emotional fabric of the film is matched by its typically dreamy aesthetic: the hyper-composed dollhouse shots, the soundtrack infused with the requisite ’60s pop gems and a children’s choir singing Benjamin Britten, the literary balance of bringing Sam and Suzy together for the first time at a production of Noye’s Fludde (Noah’s Flood) and then threatening to tear them apart during a deluge. The meticulously chosen details are all quite precious, but it’s worth remembering that precious has more than one meaning. The affectedness here is idealized, not pretentious, and certainly not false. Ultimately, the preciousness of Moonrise Kingdom simply indicates that it’s special and rare and well worth cherishing.