Movie Review: Moonrise Kingdom

I don’t have to sell you on Wes Anderson, right? I mean, he’s the indie / art film director whom it’s okay for everyone to like, isn’t he? After all, he’s always got Bill Murray in his corner, and everyone except for Communists and child molesters loves Bill Murray. And surely, this site doesn’t attract the kind of people who would wantonly accuse Anderson’s work of being “hipster?” No? Good. So with that established, you should be anticipating Moonrise Kingdom.

The movie takes place in 1965, on the Northeastern island of New Penzance. Two preteens, Khaki Scout Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) and local girl Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward), fall in love and run away together, throwing the small community into disarray. The local sheriff (Bruce Willis), Sam’s Khaki Scout troop, led by a hapless Scout Master (Edward Norton), and Suzy’s parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) all scramble to track down the young couple. The repercussions of the act turn out to be more calamitous than anyone intended, and as a hurricane approaches the island, the various players must find a way to make peace.

Moonrise Kingdom is a pure expression of the Anderson’s artistic sensibilities, everything that he’s known for distilled into a whole piece. His sumptuously colorful, meticulously detailed design style has never been more gorgeous. I thought it would be impossible for him to further perfect his “dollhouse” aesthetic after Fantastic Mr. Fox, since it used literal dollhouses, but I was wrong. He’s become supremely confident in the way that only an experienced, established artist can (some call them “auteurs,” but I’m not sold on that whole idea, still). The camera swoops through ceilings and pirouettes around walls with an entrancing grace, showing how multiple characters occupy the same space while inhabiting their own vastly different worlds. Anderson has a portrait-maker’s eye for composition, and he knows how to frame every shot for the maximum effect, often making you laugh just by the way two people are placed within the same shot.

For another thing, this film resonated with me on a more personal level than any of Anderson’s previous ones. He’s taking a child’s-eye view to the proceedings, similarly to the way he explored the frustrations of adolescence in Rushmore. From this perspective, the smallest things carry enormous weight, and even the most routine problem must be faced with the sternest seriousness, or rather a kid’s impression of what seriousness is. Despite the famed grown-ups taking the top billing, this is a kid’s story through and through. It plays out the way your childhood games in the woods felt in your head (or is it true that no one else of my generation ever went outside?), and that’s exactly the right tone to go for.

That’s why I felt for the characters and the story. I played these kinds of silly games in the woods as a kid, and this movie looks similar to what I would imagine in my head. It’s that kind of feel that will make some ignorant people scream “hipster!” But there’s not an ounce of irony in this film. It is devotedly sincere, without ever becoming cloying or too over-the-top. This is the most boundlessly warm movie that I’ve seen this year. And it’s funny! Really, truly funny! Anderson is still a master of po-faced, understated hilarity. The absurd sight gags, perfectly-delivered bizarre character lines, and dryly

None of this would work with the wrong child actors, but the ones Anderson has here are perfect. Sam and Suzy are two lonely souls who have bonded over their mutual oddness, and they are both quirky in always endearing, never irritating ways. That’s because their eccentricities stem from deeply relatable personal pains and frustrations. Sam is the perfect Boy Khaki Scout, an expert in tent-pitching, campfire-making, navigating, and all related skills. His relentless perfectionism belies the utter lack of control he has over his troubled life. Suzy, meanwhile, is a devoted literature lover, to the point where she brings a suitcase full of books in lieu of a change of clothes on their escapade. Her ever-present binoculars symbolize her perpetual remove from other people, brought on by her anxiety over her parents’s crumbling marriage. Gilman and Hayward are the best young duo to debut in a film since the kids in Let the Right One In, so adept are they at inhabiting their characters. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Khaki Scout troop, who are just as perfectly cast.

But just because this is the kids’ show doesn’t mean the adults are left twisting in the wind. Bruce Willis is, no joke, the best he’s been in at least a decade. He’s basically playing a grown-up version of Gilman’s character, and he conveys a terrific sense of melancholy reservation. Edward Norton is going pretty strongly against type as a completely good-natured, gee-shucks kind of guy, a strongly moral, exceedingly nice person who only ever has half an idea of what he’s doing. He was my favorite character by far. As the couple with a scuttled relationship and desperate helplessness over what to do with their daughter, Murray and McDormand are dependably great. Murray, as usual, is able to make the most seemingly banal lines of dialogue the funniest to hear, while McDormand makes great use of a megaphone at the most inappropriate moments. And Tilda Swinton shows up in just a few scenes as literally nothing more than the personification of an institution, and she absolutely kills it.

Moonrise Kingdom is joyful, funny, and artistically foolproof. In a year that’s already had some great movies and that is positively brimming with more great ones on the horizon, it still stands out. It’s a childhood adventure straight out of one of the YA books that Suzy loves so much, made wholly unique by way of Wes Anderson. While I shouldn’t and won’t “call it” definitively so soon after its release, I think this may be my favorite of the guy’s films so far. It struck all the right personal notes, in addition to being just plain great.

CBR Break Down:
How it was viewed
: Theater
Running time: 94 minutes
Starring: Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward, Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Frances McDormand, Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton
Directed by: Wes Anderson
Recommend viewing: 
See it if it’s showing near you. Soon.
Why you should see it: Because you are a gentleman and/or lady of taste and refinement.
Why you shouldn’t see it: Because you hate ice cream and kittens and fun.

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About Dan Schindel

Born and raised in rural Maryland, Dan Schindel now lives and works in LA, hoping to one day soon trick someone into paying him to write about film. He loves all the movies equally, no matter what genre or pedigree. He spent last year watching and writing about a documentary every day, so now he knows everything. Besides CBR, he also writes for ScreenPicks, We Are Movie Geeks, Who Got the Role?, Off to See the Elephant, and more.