For anyone—and that includes me—who’s dreamed of running away from home or discovering that they’re an orphan, director Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom (now out on DVD) will provide some bittersweet, oddball fun. This off-kilter tale of thwarted very young love strives to weave together elements of Forbidden Games, Rebel Without a Cause, and The Great Escape, with a dash of Lord of the Flies. (Yes, you read that correctly.) I didn't like it altogether, but you will have sweet time.
Moonrise Kingdom is on a set on a resort island on the Maine Coast. It’s September 1965, end of Summer. Sam (Jared Gilman) is as orphaned and despised member of the Khaki Scouts, who are camping on the island. Ultra-precocious Sam is so mired in Dickensian misfortune, his own foster family won’t take him back.
On the other end of the island, Suzie (Kara Hayward) is the oldest daughter in an unhappy family parented by chronic misery as represented by Wes Anderson stock member Bill Murray—in another burn-out role--and Frances McDormand, a mom who needs the assistance of a bullhorn to communicate with her issue.
Together, young Sam and Suzie weave and execute a plot to elope from their miserable lives. Adult-brilliant as they both are, their need and passion blind them to the fact that they are on an island that’s only about 16 miles long and a few wide, as elfin narrator and chorus Bob Balaban assures us.
It won’t take long for unhappy, clueless, harrumphing grownups (including Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, and Tilda Swinton, who is swirled in like frosting as a blue-caped Evil Social Worker Witch) and Sam’s hateful, knife-wielding fellow scouts to track these pubescent lovers down like dogs and cruelly separate them for good.
But maybe it doesn’t matter that they’re on an island. What these two young lovers are really running away from is adulthood, a realm with little to offer either of them. As always happens in these movies, the grownups are so dumbed-down and worn out by life, they’ve lost the capacity to even recognize joy in others, long after it’s died in them.
Moonrise Kingdom has more whimsy per frame than director Anderson’s other movies. It’s a magic box movie that often charms without really being involving. The film opens in the manner of an old-time slideshow on a carousel, with sets so pastel, rounded, and immaculate they appear Pixar-generated—there’s not a sharp corner or splinter anywhere.
More startling is the decision to portray the unfolding series of escapes, chases, captures, and escapes like a 1960s wartime adventure movie, such as The Great Escape. As in Alan Parker’s Bugsy Malone, the kids talk in pseudo-adult, tough-guy lingo, the movie dialogue I grew up hearing during that era (but would only recite while play-acting episodes of Combat! during recess).
For these kids, movie characters are their role models, instead of the grownups they’d be modeling themselves on in a different world. This is funny for a while, but never seems as poignant as perhaps intended. The dialogue seems to be squeezed into them, instead of emerging as a natural outgrowth of their experience. I used to want do to the things they did—pretend I was an orphan and light out for the territory like Huckleberry Finn, but I felt no identification. Near the end, the movie seems to wind down in anxious, random hugger-muggery than build to an exhilarating conclusion.
While the movie doesn’t jell for me, there are many things to like. On a technical level, there’s the lovingly detailed production and Robert Yeoman’s autumnal cinematography. There’s also Alexandre Desplat’s plucky score, accompanied by Britten and other classical composers throughout.
I got a big laugh out of the cheap ludicrous local theatre production of an epic Benjamin Britten opera, a scene that alludes to the high-school theatre production of Apocalypse Now staged in Anderson’s Rushmore, another movie about minds too big for the world they live in.
The cast is mostly fun, too: scoutmaster Edward Norton, dutiful, sensitive, serious, even with a cigarette always at hand; Harvey Keitel also pops up for an uncredited cameo. Finally, there’s Jason Schwartzman, an Anderson ensemble member, as a crooked Khaki Scoutmaster who claims powers to marry any couple he wants, so long as he’s properly compensated, preferably with Scout money.
In the end, Moonrise Kingdom reminded me that whimsy is best served in fast, light packages. Even though the film is only 94 minutes long, it’s a little too long to sustain its air of enchantment.
Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield
Poster image by Focus FeaturesThomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.