Scouting Out a Paradise: Books, Music and No Adults
By MANOHLA DARGIS
Published: May 24, 2012
Wes Anderson makes films about small worlds in which big things happen: love, heartbreak, calamities, death. In his latest, the wondrous storybook tale “Moonrise Kingdom,” a girl and a boy, both 12, run off to a remote inlet on an island where most of the adults seem disappointed and more than a little sad. The girl and the boy are very serious — about love, their plans, books, life itself — and often act older than their age. She wears bright blue eyeliner; he puffs on a corncob pipe. You wonder what their hurry is, given that here adulthood, with its quarrels, regrets and anguished pillow talk, can feel as dangerous as the storm that’s hurtling toward the island, ready to blow it all down.
The two young romantics in “Moonrise Kingdom,” which opened the 65th Cannes Film Festival on May 16, are gifted and, according to grown-ups who are supposed to know about such things, problem children. Suzy (Kara Hayward) definitely knows this about herself because she discovered a copy of a pamphlet, “Coping With the Very Troubled Child,” on top of the family fridge. She does have a temper, but she also has three younger brothers, which may help explain her tantrums. Yet, like many characters in Mr. Anderson’s films, she’s also troubled on a deeper level, beset by an existential despair that waned when, while getting ready for a performance of Benjamin Britten’s opera “Noye’s Fludde” a year earlier, she met her match, her soul mate, her co-conspirator, Sam (Jared Gilman).
The film opens shortly before the two rendezvous in a field — she brings her favorite books in a suitcase; he brings her flowers and the camping gear — and head off on a journey that’s part quest, part romance, with a touch of film noir and a hint of the French New Wave. Along the way, there are dangers, both natural and human, and finally paradise, in a small, pretty cove they rename Moonrise Kingdom. (Working with his regular cinematographer, Robert Yeoman, Mr. Anderson softens the colors and gives them the slight tint of a faded Polaroid photograph.) There, with a tent, a French pop song and unembarrassed honesty (Sam warns Suzy that he may wet the bed), they consummate, metaphorically, an enchanted, chaste affair capped with a hilariously symbolic deflowering.
Since his first feature in 1996, “Bottle Rocket,” Mr. Anderson has directed a series of personal films about characters — a schoolboy visionary, traveling brothers, wily thieves — who, through their harebrained schemes, grand pursuits or art (these are finally indistinguishable), transcend the ordinary. The same is true in “Moonrise Kingdom,” which traces how Suzy and Sam met, how they wrote to each other, shared their secrets and plans, and then went off on their adventure (their life), throwing the island’s adults into a panic. In other words, it’s about how they construct a world parallel to the larger one, carving out an intensely individual space and defining themselves through their shared visions and actions, which means that the movie is also very much about creation as an act of self-creation.
Like many of Mr. Anderson’s films, including his last one, the truly fantastic “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” there’s a deliberate, self-conscious once-upon-a-time quality to “Moonrise Kingdom.” From the minute the film opens, quickly settling on a needlepoint image of a house — a representation of the one in which Suzy lives, where it all begins — Mr. Anderson, who’s more fabulist than traditional realist, underscores the obvious point that you’re watching a story. This heightened sense of self-awareness is underscored by the exhilarating camera movements that sweep across the house from right to left, left to right, and up and down, and take you on a time and space tour through the house, past Suzy’s father and mother, Mr. and Mrs. Bishop (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand, both touching).
A marvel of choreographed motion, machine and human, this overture introduces the Bishops, suggesting who they are and what they’re like (the books indicate that this is a reading family), and some crucial leitmotifs. A pair of binoculars points to the coming adventure (and suggests a far-reaching vision), and a kitten alludes to the vulnerability of the future adventurers.
The children and parents are in separate rooms, a spatial configuration that underscores that they might as well inhabit separate universes (which they do). Early in the scene one of the boys puts on a record of Britten’s “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” (Op. 34, Themes A-F),” which the composer, working off Purcell’s “Moor’s Revenge,” wrote as an instruction for children about musical composition.
The use of “Young Person’s Guide” — which introduces the individual instruments of an orchestra and then joins them in a fugue — is clever in that it underlines the construction and framework in a collaborative artwork like this film. “Clever” is sometimes used as a cudgel against Mr. Anderson (along with “twee” and “quirky”), primarily, it seems, because he makes personal, rather than industrial, films that don’t look, move or feel like anyone else’s. The people in his work, their passions and dramas, are true and recognizable — and rarely more deeply felt than in “Moonrise Kingdom” — but they exist in a world apart, one made with extraordinary detail, care and, I think, love by Mr. Anderson. Sometimes they’re called dollhouse worlds, though, truly, they feel more authentic than many screen realities.
Mr. Anderson’s visual style and narratives, in other words, are his own. He draws you into his fantastical worlds with beauty and humor, and while their artifice can keep you at somewhat of a distance, this only deepens the story’s emotional power, especially when he lowers the boom, as he always does. The New England coastal island of Penzance, for instance, where “Moonrise Kingdom” takes place, is firmly set in Wes Anderson-land, as is the Bishops’ home and the scout camp that Sam runs away from. Like the Bishops, the Khaki Scouts at Camp Ivanhoe are initially something of an isolated ecosystem. Led by Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton), the boys do all the usual scouting things but with funny, alarming, strange twists, like building a tree house as high as an eagle’s aerie.
As he does with the Bishop home, Mr. Anderson shoots the camp with a moving camera, one that follows Ward, in profile, during his morning inspection. Although you can see well into the distance, to the rolling, treed hills that serve as the camp’s backdrop, Mr. Anderson has shot the scene so that the depth of the image has been flattened. This visual compression makes the campsite look something like a page out of a book, and is even more obvious elsewhere, as in a long shot of a lighthouse, a car and a small building. That’s where the island’s law officer, Captain Sharp (a wonderful Bruce Willis), learns, soon after Sam and Suzy run off, that the boy is being given up by his foster parents because they’ve decided that he’s emotionally disturbed. Wouldn’t you be, with parents like these?
Written by Mr. Anderson and Roman Coppola (they worked together several times before), “Moonrise Kingdom” breezes along with a beautifully coordinated admixture of droll humor, deadpan and slapstick. Like all of Mr. Anderson’s films, though, there’s a deep, pervasive melancholia here too, a sense of regret evident in Mr. Bishop’s slouch (with his plaid pants, he is a walking John Cheever tragedy) and in the way Captain Sharp and Mrs. Bishop look, and don’t look, at each other. Adulthood can seem so desperately painful, so maybe Sam and Suzy shouldn’t be quite as eager to grow up.
But Sam and Suzy, while their story has the charms of a fairy tale and some of its terrors, aren’t playing at love. They are in love, and that is the most real thing in the world.
Wes Anderson's 'Moonrise Kingdom' has youngsters in love, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand
Steven Rea, Inquirer Movie Columnist and Critic
In a flurry of recent interviews, Wes Anderson - the corduroyed auteur behind Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and other films about dreamers and depressives who move to a decidedly retro beat - has said his experience on Fantastic Mr. Fox changed his whole approach to moviemaking.
Working with little puppets and tiny props, building forests and towns in impeccable detail - as he and his crew did in that 2009 Oscar-nominated animated feature - prompted Anderson to realize he could create similarly exact and fanciful worlds for his flesh-and-blood actors, too.
Of course, he was already kind of doing that. Even The Darjeeling Limited, shot in India, imagined a kind of niftier, more eccentrically arranged subcontinent. But in Moonrise Kingdom, the exhilarating tale of two very young lovers on the lam, Anderson has created a kind of moving diorama of drama and deadpan. A concocted coastal New England, in an idyllic mid-'60s moment of coonskin caps, Françoise Hardy 45s (with picture sleeves!), and dads in madras pants who drink too much, is zealously contained within the camera's frame, and even when something goes out of control - a flyaway motorcycle, an epic downpour - it doesn't. Wes Anderson is in the wheelhouse - his wheelhouse.
Written by the director in cahoots with his filmmaking friend, Roman Coppola, Moonrise Kingdom is about 12-year-old Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) and 12-year-old Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward), whom he first spies in a bird costume (for a play), is immediately smitten with, and with whom he enters into a secret correspondence that ends with a plan to run away together.
He's at Camp Ivanhoe, a scout facility on an island ringed by sound and sea. She lives with her family (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand are the parents, and there are two younger brothers) on the other side of New Penzance, in Summer's End, a comfortably ramshackle abode near the island's lighthouse.
They meet in a meadow. He has a backpack full of camping gear, maps, and supplies. She has a portable record player and a cat poking its head out of a wicker creel. They're off!
And so are a disgruntled mom and dad (Suzy's), a flustered camp leader (Edward Norton), Sam's fellow khaki scouts (none of them like him), a fox terrier, and the town sheriff (a surprisingly sympathetic, tamped-down Bruce Willis). It's a search party with its own issues, its own fractured esprit de corps.
Moonrise Kingdom is about the raptures of falling in love, about how the rest of the world doesn't matter one whit when you lock eyes with the person of your dreams - even if (perhaps especially if) you happen to be in middle school. Gilman and Hayward, neither of them exhibiting any professional kid-actor attitude, are wonderful - making-believe with awkward conviction, even getting a little risque in a beach scene with French kissing. (Don't fret: This is not Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr's From Here to Eternity tidal clinch.)
The usual complaints and caveats about Anderson - he's precious, his characters have no grounding in the real world - can be made about Moonrise Kingdom, but so what? This is his seventh feature, he has been working with a gang of collaborators in front of the camera and behind, and his worldview gets richer, and more revealing, even as the view from his lens gets smaller, closer, almost two-dimensional in its oddball tableaux.