Whenever I see a Wes Anderson movie, I never know how I’m going to end up feeling about it. Of those I’ve seen, I’ve loved some (Rushmore still takes the cake, in my opinion), loathed some (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou), and have even been on the fence with others (The Royal Tenenbaums, which had elements I liked; others I didn’t). Moonrise Kingdom managed to span from one end of that spectrum to the other all within its brief 90 minutes.
It started out on a high note, as I was instantly captivated by the fantastic opening credits sequence, which does a marvelous job of capturing the aura of the setting (1965 in a sleepy island called New Penzance somewhere off the New England coast) as well as of the characteristically eccentric characters ever-present in Anderson’s films. The camera meanders through the charming home of the Bishops, from room to room, upstairs and down, observing the six family members as they go about their lazy late summer days at the aptly named “Summer’s End” cottage, all to the scratchy record strains of Benjamin Britten‘s “Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra“. (Other of Britten’s work is visited elsewhere in the film.) There is a story-book like quality to the whole sequence that I found clever, refreshing and a perfect introduction into the world of the Bishop family. I felt I knew a little something about each of them before even a line of dialogue was spoken. Its cartoon-like flavor even reminded me a bit of Anderson’s last feature, Fantastic Mr. Fox, his first foray into (stop-motion) animation (which I thoroughly enjoyed).
We are then introduced to the Khaki Scout Troop at Camp Ivanhoe, headed up by the somewhat inept, but well-meaning Scout Master Ward (played by Edward Norton), where we discover that one of the scouts has unexpectedly “flown the coop”, instigating the first of a series of search parties intended to recover the missing boy. We soon learn that the escaped scout, Sam, and Suzy, the only daughter of the Bishops (played by Anderson regular Bill Murray alongside Frances McDormand), have, via pen-pal letters to one another, hatched a plan to run away together, setting forth on a series of adventures. Newcomers Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman play Suzy and Sam, respectively. Hayward (who calls to mind a younger, American version of the lovely British actress Felicity Jones, who was so appealing in last year’s Like Crazy) is fabulous as the stern, “troubled” eldest Bishop child and Gilman’s Sam is a nerdy, yet confident and precocious orphan struggling to find his place. The pair of loners form an unlikely and touching bond that develops into sweet, young first love. The scenes between them as they embark on their adventures together (some amusingly reminiscent of the French New Wave film Jules et Jim) are mostly engaging and tender, particularly a scene on the beach when they dance in their underwear to Françoise Hardy and end up experimenting for the first time with kissing (and some modest feeling up). It’s winning both in its innocence and its awkwardness. The two young leads are a peculiarly endearing fit as the oddly matched young lovers (a term I use very loosely here).The rest of the cast is comprised of a considerable roster of well-known actors, some Anderson regulars (Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman), others familiar faces showing up as Anderson first-timers (Ed Norton, Bruce Willis, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Harvey Keitel, and Bob Balaban as the rustic, bearded, high-water trousered narrator/ forecaster). The one thing you can always count on in any Wes Anderson film is an array of wonderfully quirky, unique characters who provide a great deal of humor to we the audience, even as they take themselves quite seriously. Moonrise Kingdom is no exception to that rule.
There is a strain of melancholy that runs through the film, becoming ever more apparent as the story progresses. Most of the adult characters appear to be disenchanted with their lives, but have become complacent in them, which makes Sam & Suzy’s determination to escape the mundane, uninspired existences they are witness to that much more poignant. Moreover, you get the sense that the adults secretly understand, sympathize with ~ and perhaps even envy ~ the children’s desire to chart their own course, even as they attempt to “implement the rules” and prevent them from doing so.
Unfortunately, as the search party widens (to ridiculously epic proportions) and the impending Nor’easter descends upon New Penzance, the film spirals into farce. The favorably cartoonish atmosphere at the start of the film by contrast turns into a mess of over-the-top buffoonery that sucked the wind right out of the sails for me. There were too many (silly) things going on in too short a time, which turned the narrative into a chaotic parody that ended up taking me out of the story altogether. The tongue-in-cheek absurdity turned into outlandish camp.
So while Moonrise Kingdom starts out promisingly, has some enjoyable moments in the middle, and ultimately ties things up in a satisfactorily tidy bow in the end, the “climax” of the movie in its final third regrettably tainted the film for me, preventing it from falling onto my list of Anderson favorites. However, nor is it my least favorite. There is enough of Anderson’s distinctively creative filmic flair to render it at least worth a rental, if you don’t make it to the theater to see it. However, not enough to make it worth the $53 parking ticket I incurred during my viewing of it. I’m afraid it wasn’t worth that price of admission. Then again, few films would be!