'Moonrise Kingdom' bears distinctive Anderson stamp

Bill Murray, Frances MacDormand, Edward Norton and Bruce Willis in "Moonrise Kingdom." SOURCE FOCUS FEATURES
July 1, 2012

At this point in the game, when you hear a film is directed by Wes Anderson, you either await it with anticipation, or you immediately tune out, figuring it's another exercise in ironic detachment laced with sentimentality.

He is an auteur by its truest definition, with a library of films ("Rushmore," "Royal Tenenbaums," "The Life Aquatic," "Darjeeling Limited") that are easily discernible from the pack: sets with obsessive attention to detail, wildly funky soundtracks and compulsive use of framing and zooming.

His films also enlist a number of heavy-hitting actors eager to work in a film bearing his name (George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Angelica Huston, Cate Blanchett and frequent collaborator Bill Murray) and equally eager to play on his storybook sets.

I understand the backlash from those who can't embrace the filmmaker's eccentricities. His work is an acquired taste, to be sure. And "Moonrise Kingdom" certainly isn't going to win over any new converts to his parish. But for the devoted, myself included, this film represents one of the most polished live-action pieces of Anderson-ism since way back in "Rushmore." (I feel that I must qualify "live-action," because "Fantastic Mr. Fox" is a wonderfully retro animated film that will undoubtedly remain as timeless and appreciated as "Nightmare Before Christmas" has since become.)

I am convinced that Anderson is on a quest to make a film that resembles a pop-up storybook. Scenes in "Moonrise" are introduced to us through an onscreen narrator, much like Alec Baldwin did in “Tenenbaums." The responsibilities here fall upon veteran actor Bob Balaban, whose droll delivery is perfectly suited for the job. But each new scene is like a flip of the page.

He sets the scene of a 1965 summer in which two nasty storms are about to level a bucolic little island off the East Coast. One is literal: a nor'easter slowly building, but the other is in the form of a budding romance between two troubled preteens. Sam Shakusky ( played by Jared Gilman) is a precocious Khaki Scout who is camping on the island with his troop (led by Edward Norton's overly serious but compassionate and ineffectual Scout Master Ward).

Sam has plotted an escape from his campground to reunite with island inhabitant Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward), whose home life resembles that of a princess being held captive in a castle.

The two bond over the fact that they have been marked with behavioral disorders of some sort, but they have found a sense of calm with each other. Their impending union sets the town in a tizzy, from the beleaguered local police captain (played by a wonderfully understated Bruce Willis), to Suzy's dysfunctional parents (played by Bill Murray and Frances McDormand, lawyers who refer to each other as "counselor" and usually communicate in their cavernous house via bullhorn).

As the bad weather approaches, the star-cross'd lovers fight to stay together, coping with their burgeoning adult emotions/impulses, while the adults of the island descend into childlike fits of irrationality.

Aside from the Anderson trademarks, the film should be noted for just how fondly young love at this awkward age is presented, which is no small task. Many films dealing with first loves oversimplify matters.

And those who can remember back that far may recall that it's anything but simple. Urges (not entirely hormonal), emotions and actions arise, causing a response with hair trigger intensity. And "Moonrise" manages to capture them without pandering to and cleansing them. There is one particularly awkwardly beautiful scene set on a sandy coastline in which the two share their first kiss; it is one of the most clumsily sweet scenes the director has ever set to screen.

At its roots, this film is a comedy, droll as it may be. Sure, it's pretty and it's straight-faced, but it's filled with genuine humor throughout, from the stray lines of dialogue ("Jiminy Cricket, he's flown the coop!"), to simple, single shots (a scout-built tree house that precariously sits atop a skinny, stories-high pine).

And as perfectly structured as each scene may be, there is a rawness running through the film’s veins that helps deliver its touching tale. Like any good pop-up book should, “Moonrise” elevates each scene and presents its most striking bits front and center.

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