Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Love: Moonrise Kingdom

Articulating what's great about Moonrise Kingdom leads to a problematic stumbling over  descriptions and comparisons.  It's good, yes.  It's very good.  It might even be great.  Yet, trying to explain why that is somehow brings on a half-baked assessment of the elements in play.  Everyone wants to speak about it in terms of substance, as if Wes Anderson's fanatical attention to detail is on the verge of becoming passe. For some reason, this time around the line "if you've seen one you've seen them all" is being floated about like it's a known fact.  The same everyone spouting these questions also wants to know where the film lands on the scale of one to seven, with Rushmore as the inevitable numero uno.  In a bit of a conversational half-challenge, one friend asked me what specifically made Moonrise any different from the Wes flicks before it, and this is the question that has become my focus as I've slowly rolled towards writing this review.

Initially, I'd answered with a dumbed-down smart-ass's verbal calculation of differences, a total jumble of stylistic reasons: "um, well, the font has changed...there's less pop's got an actual year its supposed to take place...the kids are a little more innocent...and, uhhhh, Bruce Willis."  These tiny details are certainly factors, but they're also of no real consequence.  They don't do much (if anything) to contribute to the relative 'greatness' or 'difference' of Moonrise Kingdom.  Yet, while many of the actual reasons to love the film would read as applicable to most other Anderson storytimes, it does indeed feel a bit different, fairly new, and strangely refreshing. 
With Moonrise Kingdom, Wes Anderson shoots a storybook-sized epic on the challenges of childhood that's (perhaps predictably) as unabashedly charming as it is somehow profound.  Everything between its credits is precisely controlled and tailor-made to appeal to a housebound sense of childlike wonder, one that casts a spell with the turning of each page and follows an adventure we long to repeat.  Like all of Anderson's best works, there's a beautiful otherness to Moonrise.  It possesses magical properties, a certain casual rumpledness away from the too-clean, too-perfect visions that Hollywood regularly releases.

I've heard it said that the best fairy stories rely on the presence of strong nouns; solid objects that become powerful totems in combination with other words, and I believe this may be true of all children's literature.  The beloved books of our childhoods are in possession of a collection of meticulously placed things presented in a pleasing order: a comb, a brush, a bowl full of mush, princesses with flaxen hair, golden tickets wrapped in chocolate bars, foxes among the chickens, wishing coins in the medieval wing, tollbooths, broomsticks and common rooms and tapestries and pirate caves and walled gardens and daemons disguised as ermines or stoats.

As a director, Anderson has always seemed to hold the bittersweet simplicity of children's literature close as a source of inspiration, and it occurs to me now that he seems to be equally intimate in his understanding of their literary construction, of what it is that appeals to us as children and what brings us back to a world time and again.  He knows how to position a camera, how to cast a spell on even the cheapest luxury that removes it from any definite temporal placement and makes it desirable and just a little sad.  A pup tent in a living room, a glowing globe, dalmatian mice, the dream of a school aquarium, leopard sharks, an invisible tiger, the idea of doing anything in secret, record players, bicycles, adventurers, track suits, school blazers, orphaned boys, a dead father's glasses.  We want to possess these things or, at the very least, hold on to them as symbolic objects of something lost or secret within our own selves.  Anderson's films manage an alchemy.  They close the distance between childhood and adulthood and treat everyone within their world, regardless of actual age, as the same confused equal on a daring, everyday adventure.
Children in Wes Anderson films are in possession of knowledge that reads as more of a burden than an exploitative precociousness.  Adults, meanwhile, are dealing with a similar existential crisis. So, the adults are as childlike as the children are adultlike, and the difference is a short segment of a spectrum instead of a matter of polar opposites.  In an Anderson film, everyone keeps messing up, everyone is always missing something that prevents them from being happy, and everyone communicates in a rather frank, flat way that at its best belies a deep understanding and at its worst transforms its speakers into unyielding robots.  While Anderson has dealt with lingering childhood issues and actual children's lit (Fantastic Mr. Fox) in his last few films, Moonrise Kingdom marks the first occasion since Rushmore that the protagonists are actually still in the midst of their childhood. It feels comfortable and lived in, a return to a place where the real sadness is still far far away.

In broad terms, the story follows twelve year old couple Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward) on their rather melancholic escape from their lives as misunderstood, troubled youths.  All of the action is set on a small New England island where somehow every lighthouse, fence, and inlet reads as lovingly handmade.  It's here where the orphaned Sam attends camp as a wilderness prepared Khaki Scout, and it's here where bookworm Suzy spies on her distracted mother (Frances McDormand) with her pair of ever-present binoculars.  The two strike up a pen-pal friendship and soon decide to disappear into the woods and make a break for god knows where, much to the chagrin of the island's adult inhabitants.  On the way, they encounter everything they seem to have suspected was already out there: they come face to face with death, accept their burgeoning sexuality without question, move comfortably into uncertainty, yet have the hardest time (as so many adults do) reconciling their steadfast independence with crippling abandonment issues.  They are alone together, but truly alone just isn't an option.  Similarly, in the way of any good children's story, they are in possession of their own totems.  Coonskin caps, Francoise Hardy records, tattered fantasy novels, Benjamin Britten operas, well-worn saddle shoes. Sam asserts at one point that Suzy gets her powers from her binoculars, and, strangely, it's easy to believe that this is the case.  
The supporting players echo the sentiments of Sam and Suzy, but at a distance.  They're the most prominent actors, of course, but seem quite happy operating as fairly two-dimensional comic relief or plot-driving devices of general adorableness.  Ed Norton and Bruce Willis have the strongest of the adult roles as Scout Master Ward and Police Captain Sharp respectively, a pair who lead the search party with a sympathetic concern for the kids involved based more on the question of "what will happen next" than doubts as to their island survival.  Everyone is good, everyone hits the right sardonic pitch, and the film is fantastically funny though it hits upon any number of familiar solemn notes.  Which brings us, I think, back to the questions posed at the outset: what makes Moonrise Kingdom different?  Where does it stand?  Does it have substance?  The answer isn't definite, and the differences are perhaps only in the nerves struck.  Moonrise Kingdom is a film like any other Wes Anderson film, which means that though it may sound the same, it is of a different timbre.  It's the same orchestra, but a different orchestration, if that makes sense.  If you approach it with a trained ear, you will reap its rewards.  Otherwise,  you may simply have lost your ability to hear what it's trying to say.


  1. The pictures and the gif in the beginning look so lovely. I love Anderson's visual side so I'll definetly see this one, although I must confess I wasn't impressed by any of the stories in his films. They are nice, entertaining but not moving or especially memorable.

    1. I recommend it even if you're not a huge fan of Anderson's. Obviously, I'm in the cult that finds them tremendously relatable, memorable, and moving (to a certain extent); but I think the childhood elements here may play well to a broader audience. Ultimately, it's light and funny no matter how you slice it...

  2. Going to see it tomorrow so, in two days I can finally read this review! :D

  3. The reputation of Wes Anderson as one of America's most consistently over-rated directors gets another boost with his latest exercise in stylistic posturing and forced whimsy.


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