(Warning! This review contains spoilers. Click here for a comparative analysis of Moonrise Kingdom and Seth MacFarlane’s Ted Click here for Franklin Laviola’s 2012 New York Film Festival Preview)
Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom is a featherlight comedy about two rebellious twelve year-olds, pursuing love and adventure in the summer of 1965.
On a small island, somewhere off the coast of New England, orphan Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) flees his Khaki Scout camp in a canoe, with plenty of pilfered supplies, a BB gun, a corncob pipe, and a Davy Crockett hat. On the other side of the island, Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward), who has a tendency to go “berserk” on her classmates and dysfunctional family, runs away from home, carrying her brother’s record player, a collection of fantasy novels, a kitten in a basket, and her special pair of binoculars. A golden meadow awaits the couple’s rendezvous.
A flashback reveals that Sam and Suzy met the previous summer at a church performance of Benjamin Britten’s “Noye’s Fludde” and spent the past year, through a series of letters, getting to know one another and devising a plan to meet once again and then abscond into the wilderness. But their romantic flight won’t go unchallenged. Soon, a search party, led by Scout Master Randy Ward (a miscast Edward Norton), the local sheriff Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), and Suzy’s parents, Walter (Bill Murray, again, in sad sack cuckold mode) and Laura (Frances McDormand), is in hot pursuit of the couple, as a massive storm looms on the horizon.
Moonrise Kingdom is at its very best, when focusing exclusively on the interaction of its two twelve year-old protagonists. Early on in their wilderness adventure, Suzy shares a secret with Sam, when she displays “Coping with The Very Troubled Child,” a book that her parents had unsuccessfully hidden from her on top of the refrigerator. “Are you laughing at me?,” Suzy, visibly hurt, quietly admonishes Sam, before retreating into her tent to be alone. After a tense beat, Sam follows and reassures her, “I’m on your side.” Then, quite tenderly, he wipes away her tears with a handkerchief.
Later on, when Sam and Suzy set up camp on a secluded beach, Anderson is not afraid to explore the couple’s budding sexuality. (Of course, Anderson maintains discretion — Sam’s onscreen piercing of Suzy’s ears with fish hooks is the cleverest substitution for defloration of the year!) Sam and Suzy, in only their underwear, dance to Francoise Hardy’s 1962 pop classic “Le Temps de l’Amour,” and then share their first French kiss. “I think they’ll grow more,” Suzy comments, having directed Sam to place his hand on her chest. Together, these two scenes are the sharpest and sweetest Anderson has written, not just since his writing partnership with Owen Wilson came to an end, but since Rushmore (still his best film).
For its first two acts, Moonrise Kingdom is a simple story, very well-told, and it’s a shame Anderson and his co-writer, Roman Coppola, aren’t able to sustain it. Their narrative begins to derail, when Sam’s rival Khaki Scouts make an unlikely collective decision to help the couple (temporarily forced apart) escape together off the island. Considering that the unpopular Sam and Suzy, just several scenes earlier, mercilessly defeated and humiliated this same group of scouts in an armed confrontation, AND sent their self-appointed leader to the infirmary with a serious stab wound, this sudden dramatic development is not only unconvincing, it’s illogical. But, as he has done repeatedly throughout his seven feature films, this, here, is another example of Anderson forcing a sense of communal goodwill on his characters, where there was no trace of it to begin with (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou being the most flagrant example of this tendency).
The rest of the film’s third act is cluttered with incident. Naturally, the storm hits the island, causing major flash floods (foreshadowed by the Britten piece), but Anderson and Coppola miss the opportunity to focus again on the growing relationship of their young couple as they attempt to take shelter and continue to elude the adult authorities. Instead, they pile on the events in rapid succession — Sam’s showdown with his ultra-waspy, wounded Khaki Scout foe over Suzy’s special pair of binoculars; Scout Master Randy Ward’s heroic rescue of his superior officer; one of the young protagonist’s getting struck by lightning, — none of which are necessary, all of which succeed in irreparably shifting the tone to the cartoonish. Distracting and unfunny extended cameos by both Harvey Keitel and Jason Schwartzman, amidst all of the narrative chaos, certainly don’t help matters either.
In recent interviews, Wes Anderson has cited Waris Hussein’s Melody (1971) as inspiration for Moonrise Kingdom. Hussein’s film, scripted by Alan Parker (Midnight Express) and featuring a soundtrack by the pre-disco era Bee Gees, is not just another film about puppy love, but one of the best films ever made about children and their unique world of innocence. Hussein and Parker tell their story entirely from the children’s point of view, and, wisely, keep the screen time of adult characters to a minimum. The film’s style is loose, but incredibly observant and spontaneous, while its effect is consistently funny and even heartbreaking. If only Moonrise Kingdom could have been more like Melody.
Franklin P. Laviola is a filmmaker and freelance writer, based in the New York area. He wrote and directed the award-winning short film “Happy Face,” which has screened at over twenty film festivals. He recently interviewed actress Alice Barnole and discussed the 2012 Academy Awards (see his Oscar predictions and what should have been nominated).