Wes Anderson begins his sixth live action feature film with a dioramic view of a coastal New England home and its upper middle class inhabitants set to an instructional segment of Benjamin Bitten's The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra. Immediately, this tells viewers two things. One, this is a story for the young and the still young at heart for which cynics need not apply. And, two, Anderson has dissected and reassembled this, his meticulous modus operandi, for the purpose of trimming the extravagances and tangents of his more ambitious works like The Life Aquatic and The Royal Tenenbaums and pairing down his vision to a more manageable mileage.
That the heart and depth of Moonrise Kingdom far surpasses the former but can't quite reach the creative, mythical peek of the latter is largely irrelevant, because what this 1960s-set drama does offer moviegoers is a welcome chance to see one of this generation's most unique and gifted filmmakers more consistently hungry and focused that he has been in nearly a decade.
Written with Roman Coppola and shot on vintage, warm-hued 16mm, Moonrise takes place in a 1965 that feels more non-fiction than mythic, a classic young adult novel brought to bare on screen before ever living life as a paperback.
Moonrise follows two 12-year-olds who fall in love and run away from their small township on the Eastern seaboard setting off a madcap search for their whereabouts. Throughout, it feels more lived in, more real than recent Anderson efforts, even if his characters are still doing and saying ridiculous and ridiculously insightful things.
With his over-eager drill sergeant routine masking a Cadbury Egg center, Edward Norton's Scout Master Ward might be Anderson's greatest supporting character since Willem Dafoe's runtish German deck hand Klaus from The Life Aquatic. Norton captures the essence of the everyman, which is to say, he's an absolute oddball in sheep's clothing, ready to make decisions alarming or heartwarming at a moment's notice as if choosing between them are as simple as choosing different blades of a pocket knife.
While not without a few garbled lines and offbeat deliveries, the young leads Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward perform admirably given the lion's share of screen time. Gilman channels a Davy Crockett-idolizing loner while Hayward is all pencil-skirted rebellion and anti-authority angst. His parents are dead, so he longs for family, even if his has to woo his crush into the woods to start his own. Her parents are deeply flawed creatures, so she wants out as fast as possible. “You're a traitor to our family,” one of her trio of younger brothers deadpans. “Good,” she snaps at him. “I want to be.”
That's not to say Moonrise is without faults. First, it's pacing is largely of the European 1970s variety and may catch even fans of The Darjeeling Limited off balance. Just as the search for our runaways should be heating to a boil an extended, charmingly aimless forest sequence sets in at the beginning of Act 2, trains its focus on Suzy and Sam's journey from civilization and doesn't let go. It's a stretch filled with delicious moments of character development and snatches of quirky humor, but without the slightest interest in plot development. Cutting between these scenes and the mania occurring back in town may have been played up the effect of comedic contrast.
Throughout Murray is far more subdued than I expected, detached even, save for the glorious moment when his shoe intentionally sails in Scout Master Ward's direction. His character is much more Raleigh St. Claire than Steve Zissou, and if given a little more material to chew on, Murray's character could have served the film well. Bruce Willis is right at home as a policeman here, and his tamped down bravura is supplanted by a relatable personality that lends the film some of its more tender moments. Before veering too close to melodrama, Jason Schwartzman turns up toward the end to give Moonrise another absurdist, comedic jolt in classic Anderson style. Moonrise could have used a little more of Schwartzman and Norton, alike.
But in the end, all of the adults are secondary here, and despite the talent on hand, I'm okay with that decision. Anderson and Coppola leave no stone of the Suzy and Sam romance unturned, tying a satisfying, if realistically open-ended, bow around it by the final frame.
Certainly, it is a long shot to knock Rushmore or Tenenbaums off most fans' lists of their favorite Anderson pictures, but the singular love-stricken arc and sheer admiration for each of these well-drawn characters keeps Moonrise from feeling like a minor work in Anderson's growing canon. Will it win him many new fans? Probably not. But those who are watching are having a dandy of a time in his carefully crafted echo chamber.
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