Wes Anderson has a special place in my heart. Back in 2007, during one of the many times my mother sat me down to watch some obscure film she’d heard about, she popped in a film that sounded incredibly drab to my younger self entitled The Darjeeling Limited. To my surprise, ninety-one minutes later, a broad smile had crept across my face as the credits rolled across the screen. And for the first time in my life, I took a movie I had just watched, ran to my room, and proceeded to re-watch the entire thing. It was then that I decided I must learn more about Wes Anderson and his entirely strange-but-charming body of work.
After watching everything from Bottle Rocket to The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, I realized that while I wasn’t so attached to Anderson’s films on the whole, I was a sucker for his quirky filmmaking and honest, good-natured storytelling. I eagerly awaited his next feature, a strange-looking stop-motion animated movie called Fantastic Mr. Fox. Unlike his earlier films which I merely enjoyed, I was as blown away by Fox as I was by The Darjeeling Limited. It seemed to me Anderson was on a true winning streak with his films.
Now it’s 2012, and Anderson is looking to go for a hat trick – and I’m happy to report that Moonrise Kingdom is exactly what I had hoped for, and more; aided by Darjeeling co-writer Roman Coppola, Anderson’s story of young love perfectly captures the themes of innocence, loyalty, and camaraderie. Fantastic Mr. Fox and The Darjeeling Limited remain dear to me, but suffered from some pretty major pacing issues. Moonrise Kingdom eschews this pitfall using tight plot beats and spunky dialogue to land on both feet with arms outstretched, earning a ten out of ten.
Aesthetically, the film takes on a decidedly toy box-like motif. From the lighthouse on one end of the idyllic New English island where the story takes place to the seemingly utopian Bishop household, the movie feels like a tale told from the perspective of a small child. In this way, the film constantly echoes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou by smartly drawing from that film’s excellent cinematography for use in Moonrise Kingdom; his direction maintains its Uys-esque kitsch throughout, replete with long pans and overt zooms. Similarly, Anderson’s time with stop-motion in Fantastic Mr. Fox gives him the freedom to play with his characters in a much more cartoonish manner, employing some magnificent principles of the animated world to manipulate his protagonists.
Newcomer Jared Gilman as camp scout Sam Shakusky is visually reminiscent of a young Daniel Radcliffe, but the former shows a remarkable potential for growth as an actor which was not nearly as apparent in the latter. Gilman stars opposite Kara Hayward, an oddball of an actress who relishes every moment of her big screen debut under Wes Anderson’s guidance. Together their chemistry creates one of the most awkward, strange on-screen love stories I’ve ever seen, and yet remains more emotionally compelling than any other romance film in recent memory.
Supporting characters include an exuberant Ed Norton, a big Wes Anderson fan himself, who clearly enjoys his role as a Khaki Scout leader. Bruce Willis also makes a notable turn in the film as a policeman; it seems that once taken out of the spotlight, a softer, subtler side to the prolific actor manifests itself (see Pulp Fiction). Interestingly, the choice to include Bob Balaban as the narrator, Balaban being a recurrent player in the equally dry Christopher Guest comedies, was an inspired choice as well; I look forward to seeing him in other films by this director. Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, and Anderson’s favorites Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman all round-out a perfect cast.
If you don’t like Wes Anderson, you probably won’t enjoy this film nearly as much as I did. This is not to say you need prior familiarity with the director’s œuvre to have a good time with Moonrise Kingdom, but if his filmmaking doesn’t do it for you, this movie will probably feel like more of the same old silliness. Granted, I think even Anderson haters will get something out of the touching central plot, but for those of us who are willing to accept his strange charm as a director, this movie will rank among his very best. For my part, I am confident in declaring this as both his best film, and as the best film I’ve seen this year. Moonrise Kingdom should be a strong contestant for Best Picture at the 85th Academy Awards.
Verdict: Movie Win