Movie review by Greg Carlson
A beautiful, wistful, half-real, half-imagined love affair between a pair of twelve-year-olds, “Moonrise Kingdom” is Wes Anderson’s seventh feature film and one of the finest movies of the year. Distilling nearly every one of the director’s principal thematic and stylistic concerns, “Moonrise Kingdom” matches the bittersweet blend of comedy and melancholy that surges through “Rushmore” and “The Royal Tenenbaums” while adding a commanding new chapter to Anderson’s impressive filmography. Set in 1965 on an Atlantic coast island called New Penzance, where the local church hosts a fully mounted production of Benjamin Britten’s “Noye’s Fludde” and a Khaki Scout troop hones its outdoor survival skills in the rugged terrain, “Moonrise Kingdom” rapidly establishes both its peculiar, singular perspective and a well-supplied outpost in the viewer’s heart.
Using the classic motif of a gathering storm to hint at the tumultuous emotional upheavals experienced by the protagonists, Anderson and co-screenwriter Roman Coppola open up “Moonrise Kingdom” to take advantage of the tempestuous relationship between island dwellers and unpredictable, unstoppable nature. Anderson has always expertly situated his characters within settings that operate as fully formed personalities, and the scale of “Moonrise Kingdom” is simultaneously microcosmic and expansive. Anderson has previously acknowledged the inspirational allure of E.L. Konigsburg’s “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler,” and like his closer echo depicting Margot and Richie Tenenbaum running away from home to hide out in the public archives, the inciting action of “Moonrise Kingdom” arises from the mutual decision of Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) and Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) to flee their circumstances for a new life together.
Once again, Anderson’s fastidious eye for detail envisions frames filled with glorious reminders of the past, some concrete (like the 45 of Francoise Hardy’s “Le temps de l’amour” spinning on a portable record player in a beguiling and awesome dance interlude) and some invented (like the beautifully illustrated covers of Suzy’s library books with titles including “Shelly and the Secret Universe” and “The Francine Odysseys”). Captured on lovely, vibrant Super 16mm film by Robert Yeoman, who has photographed all of Anderson’s features with the exception of “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “Moonrise Kingdom” exploits its sumptuous locations with the aid of narrator Bob Balaban, a presence who exists within the universe of the movie but also omnisciently beyond it. Balaban was also enlisted to play the same role in the film’s engrossing website, a trove of supplemental information that will keep Anderson disciples busy for hours.
While longtime Anderson MVP Bill Murray makes simmering frustration look so easy (“I’m going to find a tree to chop down”), the addition of Frances McDormand, Edward Norton, and Bruce Willis brings as much value to “Moonrise Kingdom” as Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston and Danny Glover added to “The Royal Tenenbaums.” Anderson’s abiding respect for his underage protagonists – played by unknowns – evinces a confidence in which newcomers share the screen with Academy Award winners, nominees, and box office heavyweights willing to surrender their status and ego as part of an egalitarian ensemble. It’s also an electric delight to watch Jason Schwartzman, our once-upon-a-time Max Fischer, as the wily fixer Cousin Ben, an Anderson character for the ages.
Of the many joys to be found in “Moonrise Kingdom,” the delirious, frank, and affectionate letters between devoted pen pals Sam and Suzy provide abundant pleasure. “Moonrise Kingdom” features Anderson’s most extensive use of epistolary voicing to date, and the notes are occasionally glimpsed but often read only in excerpt. Combined with the actions of their authors, the cherished salutations serve as a sharp reminder of the precarious tipping point where childhood innocence and idealization gives way to adolescent awareness that the grown-up world can be complicated, frustrating, and filled with disappointment. That intersection, so lovingly captured in Sam and Suzy’s impossibly serious, improbably wise commitment to one another, might not last very long, but it stays with you forever.