“Moonrise Kingdom” once again shows Wes Anderson to be one of the most imaginative filmmakers working today. With his story of two kids falling in love and running away together, he gives audiences a whimsical journey into a past filled with innocence that constantly gets upended by bouts of family dysfunction. In a time where Hollywood relies too much on old ideas and endless remakes, seeing Anderson get an original movie like this made today feels like a miracle.
The movie takes place on the New England island of New Penzance in the year 1965. Twelve year old Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) has encouraged his pen pal of one year, Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward), to run away with him into the island’s wilderness. Doing this however sends their parents and the town into a frenzy as they search to find them both.
Sam himself is an orphan whose foster parents no longer want him around, and his running off with Suzy coincides with his resigning as a member of the Khaki Scout summer camp. Led by Scout Master Randy Ward (Edward Norton), he has learned many useful skills but is despised by all the other troops he is forced to spend time with. In Suzy, he finds a much-needed soul mate who herself is ostracized from her schoolmates and is not blind to the marital difficulties her attorney parents, Walt (Bill Murray) and Laura (Frances McDormand), are going through. Suzy is even aware of her mother having an affair with the island’s police Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis).
It turns out however that these two kids have done the island of New Penzance a huge favor as their romantic getaway wakes up its inhabitants from the sullen slumber their lives have descended into. This is especially the case with Walt and Laura who seem bereft of emotions for one another. It gets to where Laura can barely communicate with Walt without using a bullhorn to get his and their kids attention. When Walt finds out that his daughter has run away, he responds to his wife’s informing him of this situation as a “loaded question” more than anything else.
The sullenness of the adults is contrasted sharply with the sheer innocence of Sam and Suzy who find a secluded cove on the island where their romance quickly blooms. Their adventurous behavior proves to be contagious as they read through storybooks Suzy stole from the local library and dance to some records of lively French rock music. The specific details Anderson gives these characters make them among the most unique kids seen in movies for quite some time. With their taste in art, literature and music, they almost seem more mature than their parental figures.
It is that theme of innocence that permeates “Moonrise Kingdom” throughout as the characters deal with what’s left of it in their lives while others desperately try to recapture it for themselves. Norton’s character of Scout Master Ward is an example of a man trying to stay young by embracing his role as a scout leader to where he takes it a little too seriously. To him, this role gives his life more meaning than any day job ever could, but the kids under his command don’t all see it the same way he does as what was important to Ward is not as important to them.
Then there’s Willis’ character of Captain Sharp who, like Sam and Suzy, feels like a loner on this small island. In this role, Willis almost outdoes Murray’s sullen expression as his face becomes a mask of inescapable sadness. It is through searching for these kids that his life finds new meaning as they make him feel young again and give him a reason to live a life with more purpose.
Having read all this, one might think “Moonrise Kingdom” is some sort of serious drama, but it’s really a wondrous coming of age movie with a lot of gleefully inspired comedic moments. Anderson has always populated his movies with sad characters, and yet he still finds ways for the audience to laugh with them during their endless struggles. While this film has him once again dealing with his favorite themes of family dysfunction and arrested development, he finds a wonderful slant which ends up making it one of his best efforts.
One of Anderson’s other successes here is in making a period piece that is not a prisoner to its period. While its eclectic soundtrack (a must buy by the way) gets the music of 1965 down perfectly, this movie takes place in a world that doesn’t quite mesh with reality. As a result, “Moonrise Kingdom” almost feels like it could be taking place at any period of time. Perhaps that can be the result of remembering the first time we ever fell in love.
Like the best Wes Anderson movies, there isn’t a single weak performance to be found and the actors inhabit their characters to the best of their abilities. Bill Murray, a veteran of several Anderson movies now, still strikes comedic gold even as his characters seem to get sadder and sadder. McDormand is highly entertaining to watch as always, and that’s regardless of whether or not her character needs a bullhorn to be heard.
Among the newbies to the cinematic universe of Wes Anderson, Bruce Willis proves to be a surprising and welcome addition as the lonely police captain. His face can speak a thousand words even when he doesn’t speak, and he looks to be having a blast in the kind of movie one doesn’t always expect to see him in.
Edward Norton is another newbie to Anderson’s movies, and it’s nice to see him let loose in a way he hasn’t in a while. His role of the hapless scout master allows Norton to create a character that could have just been someone to laugh at with endless disdain. Never does he play Randy Ward for laughs like many others would have, and that makes his character all the stronger for it.
As for the actors inhabiting Sam and Suzy, Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward do a fantastic job of capturing their characters’ individual sensibilities and unique aspects. Thanks to their performances, they make these pre-teens seem very human and not just your typical kids searching for meaning in a formulaic movie.
In addition, you get excellent performances from Jason Schwartzman as Cousin Ben, another Khaki Scout who aids the two runaways in their quest to be together. Even Harvey Keitel shows up in a delightfully unexpected way as Commander Pierce, the king of all Khaki Scouts.
Beautifully shot and wonderfully written, “Moonrise Kingdom” looks to stand alongside “Rushmore,” “The Royal Tenenbaums” and “Fantastic Mr. Fox” as one of Anderson’s best and most inventive movies to date. His films representative a highly imaginative cinematic landscape that filmmakers in general don’t get to dwell in often right now (if at all), and it’s one that remains a great deal of fun to visit.
* * * ½ out of * * * *