The moment “Moornise Kingdom” graces the screen, it is a Wes Anderson film. The first major sequence, the symmetrical exploration of the Bishop house, couldn’t be mistaken for any other filmmaker’s style — nor could the rest of the film, honestly. So if Anderson is just as divisively quirky as ever, why has “Moonrise Kingdom” resonated with audiences more than any of his previous work? Surely it can’t just be the absence of any Wilson brothers.
In the ’60s, on the island of New Penzance somewhere in New England, Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward) have run away together. Sam, a foster child, has “resigned” from the Khaki Scouts; Suzy, the fiction-loving elder daughter of the well-off Bishop family, feels isolated and ignored. Their innocent tryst sets the Khaki Scouts, led by Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton), Police Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) and Mr. and Mrs. Bishop (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) on a search of the island.
Anderson wastes no time plunging into this story, to the point where you’ll wonder if the film is nearly over when in actuality it’s maybe halfway through. The simplicity of two 12-year-olds running away makes it rather engaging, but more importantly there’s a sweetness to that notion that creates more of an emotional interest too.
That’s where you can start to see what makes “Moonrise Kingdom” arguably Anderson’s best. It’s like any other Anderson film in that it deals with family dynamics and the adult characters have serious maturity problems, but it stands out in that Sam and Suzy are the clear main characters. Something about Anderson’s style, particularly with his dialogue, works surprisingly well with young characters, possibly because we expect a certain quirkiness and immaturity from kids that can sometimes come off as annoying from the mouths of adults. It’s in part what made his breakthrough film “Rushmore” so good.
Gilman and Hayward were cast exceptionally well too. Sam is incredibly smart for his age but has a naive confidence that Gilman pulls off as a dorky-looking kid capable of sharp facial expressions. Hayward, done up like young Margot Tenenbaum, has the look of a pretty young girl yet to come into her own who’s rather reserved but capable of surprising things (like violence). They’re an odd match, but they completely capture the notion of young, curious love that will guaranteed bring back those kinds of memories for viewers.
The adults aren’t forgettable, but in supporting roles it maximizes their funny factor. They’re completely ignorant to the needs of the kids and though they chastise Sam and Suzy’s romance, they fare no better themselves. We can laugh at them as well as with them. For those wondering about Willis, his reserved manner of speaking, even in action films, makes him a great fit for Anderson.
“Moonrise Kingdom” has a “Romeo & Juliet” quality to it as well, from the prologue that warns of an impending storm to hit New Penzance to Bob Balaban’s other inserted transitions as the narrator. This contrasts but also enhances the film’s cheeky tone: the relationship between the kids is the sincere and genuine core around which the rest of the film’s quirkiness gravitates. We experience a vested interest in the outcome that’s regularly interrupted by Anderson’s shenanigans. It’s a constant back-and-forth of cinema and fairy tale but not in a jarring sense, which is what has made Anderson a stand-out director of the last 15 or so years.
Those who have always identified with Anderson and love most of his films might not find much difference between “Moonrise” and the rest of his resume, but those who struggle with “The Royal Tenenbaums” and “The Life Aquatic” to some extent will find something extremely refreshing about “Moonrise Kingdom.” Frankly, it’s his most accessible film (unless you count the family-geared “Fantastic Mr. Fox”): the story his most straightforward, his dry humor at its punchiest.
Written and Directed by Wes Anderson
Starring: Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward, Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Frances McDormand, Bill Murray