Moonrise Kingdom (2012) ★★★½
Dir: Wes Anderson, USA, 94 mins
Cast: Kara Hayward, Jared Gilman, Francis McDormand, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Bruce Willis
Wes Anderson has always been a director who divides audiences. For every viewer who revels in the offbeat, almost Trumpton esque world his films inhabit there is another argument that considers these twee, overly precious and style over substance.
After enjoying Anderson’s debut Bottle Rocket (1996) and, particularly, follow up Rushmore (1998), for me personally the rot set in with The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), possibly his best received film. Despite admiring Gene Hackman’s central performance, overall I felt alienated and had little emotional empathy for the family of eccentrics on show. It is a film I shall go back to re-evaluate. Although I did not vehemently dislike, this seemed like old hat and lacked the freshness and vibrancy of both debut and sophomore efforts. Fantastic Mr Fox (2009), despite heavily Americanising Roald Dahl’s original text, was entertaining enough but his last live action The Darjeeling Limited (2007), did little to alleviate this notion. Here was a sprawling mess masquerading as spiritual journey that ends up nowhere very slowly with a “shrug your shoulders” finale.
Set in 1965 on an island off the coast of New England (days before a major storm the omnipotent narrator informs us) the plot focuses on Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) and Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman), loners who become kindred spirits and ultimately runaways. This prompts a mass search encompassing everyone from local police Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), Suzy’s parents (Francis McDormand and Bill Murray) to Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton) and his troop of Khaki scouts.
Old detractors will not be persuaded. Retro attire, music and the requisite kitsch 60’s and 70’s colour palette are all in place, this time legitimately you could argue. Thematically a strong sense of community and underlying issues within dysfunctional families reside all in a whimsical toy town setting. So far, so Anderson but the strength of Moonrise Kingdom lies in its focus on the two young leads and the innocence of youth and first love, relegating the adult actors to supporting cast.
This may sound sickly sweet but the slightly off centre tone never allows it to be. Both leads are engaging, particularly Hayward as the enigmatic Suzy (think a younger Margot Tenenbaum). To a certain degree this harks back to territory dealt with in Rushmore, which also had a young cast, albeit without the mild psychotic streak displayed by Jason Schwartzman’s Max. This burgeoning relationship is nicely paralleled with the dovetailing of Mr and Mrs Bishop’s marriage acknowledged in a brief, superbly played scene between Murray and McDormand, a note of resignation and the complexities of adult life to that of youthful exuberance.
Amongst the supporting cast Willis and Norton are standouts. Willis acts his age (no string vests here!) and turns in a subtle, world weary performance, refreshing from his usual wise cracking persona. Norton’s manchild Scout leader is highly amusing in his dedication to the job. We are first introduced to him on an early morning camp walkabout where he drills his chaotic troop as they embark on duties for the day ahead. Anderson regular Schwartzman also pops up seemingly channelling the gung ho spirit of Surfer Boy from the Apocalypse Now (1979) rip off play at the end of Rushmore.
Moonrise Kingdom is far from progression, it adheres rigidly to the template, but it is a return to form. A deviation would be an intriguing prospect at this point in Anderson’s career if only to see him outside his comfort zone, ideally with another screenwriters material. Perhaps the finale, without giving too much away, is symbolic of a change of direction, getting things out of his system so to term it. I very much doubt it but regardless I can ensure that it will bring a wry smile to any detractors face.