We're in love. We just want to be together. What's wrong with that?
For all the striking stylistic elements of Moonrise Kingdom, my favorite thing about it might be its simple, effective story. We dive into the film in medias res with what appears to be a fairly simple caper. Pre-teen boy and girl are infatuated, Romeo and Juliet style, and on the run. How will they inevitably get caught?
But with each scene, the film adds a layer onto that story. The boy, Sam (Jared Gilman), has never had a proper home, hence his desire to create one of his own. The girl, Suzy (Kara Hayward), has a dad who is depressed and disengaged (Bill Murray) and a mom (Frances McDormand) who’s having an affair with a local cop (Bruce Willis). Thus, she longs for a more romantic and devoted version of love.
It’s a movie that has every opportunity to scoff at its idealistic and romantic heroes, but always ends up on their side. We must purge, Anderson argues, the cynicism and emotional exhaustion of the past — sin literally washed away by a great flood — in favor of Garden of Eden innocence and progressive hope. Sam and Kara are more devoted and loyal to each other than any other characters in the film, and Moonrise Kingdom genuinely believes the world will be a better place with them together, the rest of the world be damned. In this way, it’s actually the inverse of Romeo and Juliet.
The film operates in a register of deadpan comedy, marvelously maintained throughout the whole runtime. This is a very funny film, often in subdued ways. There aren’t too many punchlines, but the movie doesn’t really need them: everything about the timing and character reactions and camera movements and clever cuts is inspired and provocative. The world itself is filled with funny inventions, too: a hyper-disciplined Boy Scouts like a team of Navy SEALS, an over-the-top animal pageant (“what kind of bird are you?”).
This film also represents a refinement of Wes Anderson’s distinct stylization. Anderson’s color instincts are unparalleled, here full of natural greens and khakis and flashes of floral pinks and blues. It’s truly lovely and nostalgic, evoking an old timey photo. But Anderson’s real achievement is his endlessly pleasing compositions, symmetrical and precise, and how they bring out a sentimentality in the film’s emotions. “Dollhouse” is the common term for his style, and I think it fits: everything is orderly and entire contained in the frame of relatively flat depth, arranged like a kid putting all of his toys in a row.
But that description undersells Anderson’s achievement. He has an artist’s eye, and he gets so much out of such simple cinematic techniques. For as prominent and unique as the artifice is, it’s built on basic cinematic techniques like tripod pans and extended medium shots of two people talking. These are maneuvers that directors have been doing for a hundred years, but that never look like this.
Another of the film’s triumphs is the score by Alexandre Desplat. It sets a perfect tone for the film. His score is subtitled “The Heroic Weather-Conditions of the Universe”; and the composition is as dreamy and whimsical and evocative as the title. It’s perfect.
The acting is excellent. The adults’ intensity and stress always bubbles just under the surface, and they have great chemistry together, especially Willis and McDormand. But it’s the kids who really impress: Gilman and Hayward are terrifically fun to watch. They don’t betray an ounce of knowingness or eye-rolling at the miniature melodrama they play. They each convey something noble and heroic without sacrificing the edge built into the characters.
It all adds up into a film of breathtaking richness and joy; there are so many little touches and allusions and interconnected motifs that you’ll forever have details to parse out and admire. I was blown away the first time I saw the film, but I’ve loved it even more every time since as more visual and narrative connections click into place.
I haven’t seen every one of Wes Anderson’s films, but this is easily my favorite of his so far. I’ll go one step further: Moonrise Kingdom is one of the best films of the new millennium to date and I dare say one of my all-time favorites.