Indie filmmaking darling and eternal retrophile Wes Anderson sets his heavily stylized lens on sleepy New England coastal communities in his new adolescent love yarn Moonrise Kingdom. Does this jaunt into 1960’s fantasy escapism mark a return to Steve Zissou-esque majesty or is it just another dull ride a la Darjeeling Limited?
It’s hard to believe it has been over a decade since Wes Anderson became a household name in the cineniche with The Royal Tenenbaums and, still, nearly fifteen since his first major breakout with appropriated celebrated Rushmore, especially in light of how fresh and glaringly hip those films continue to be even by today’s standards. Anderson’s story-book approach to the cinematic narrative that surrounds is wholly human and relatable characters often proves the perfect balancing act between the fantastical novelty of their circumstances and the sardonic commentaries about relationships that permeate and sizzle in each film with understated immediacy. In this sense, Anderson is a rare auteur capable, at his best, of incomparable storytelling satisfaction when it comes to character arcs, stylistic presentation, and ironic appeal. In other words, the guy’s a deserving hipster magnet.
That said, Anderson’s career hasn’t been without it’s fair share of missteps and mixed reception. 2007’s Darjeeling Limited, for example, proved relatively disappointing despite the exceptional cast and setting, mostly because it buckled under its own thematic pretensions. The same can be said, at least in my opinion, about Tenenbaums, where precocious and intriguing story-lines end up sacrificed for overly sentimental undertones midway through the film. In both cases, the films are eventually redeemed through excellent and bittersweet final acts, though, when held next to gems like Rushmore or the criminally underrated Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Anderson’s crushing commentaries on the nature of broken family-life tend to overwhelm his lesser pictures, removing his audience from the sense of wonder and stylishly ridiculous excitement he is fully capable of bringing to the table.
Lucky for us, Anderson’s newest flick, coming-of-age fantasy Moonrise Kingdom is far and away better than Darjeeling Limited, and, in many ways, his most readily accessible film (yes, even more appealing to mainstream audiences than Fantastic Mr. Fox). Shot with his signature eye toward retro-stylism (aided by the 1960’s setting) and intimate attention to subtle human eccentricities, Kingdom is the rare movie that strikes its audience as elaborately constructed without ever feeling contrived; formulated without feeling formulaic. Sure Bill Murray mopes around and Bob Balaban offers whimsically informative on-screen narration every so often, but it never comes across as pretentious as much as it does engrossing and engaging in familiar yet novel ways.
The set-up is simple enough: orphaned and jaded Khaki Scout Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) runs away from his regiment with pen-pal/first-crush Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) as both seek solace from broken homes, bullying, and adults brushing their feelings aside. As their adventure is paralleled with the small-knit island community’s rally to find them, Anderson puts surprising emphasis and depth into seemingly cookie-cutter characters like Bruce Willis’ Captain Sharp and Edward Norton’s Scout Master Randy Ward charged with rescuing them, painting them less as antagonists and, rather, as kindred spirits capable of empathizing with Sam and Suzy even as they seek to tear them apart. The same can be said for Billy Murray and Francis McDormand’s performances as Suzy’s fractious yet aloof lawyer parents, who slowly grow to maturity, much like Sam and Suzy do, throughout the film. Yes, there are a couple villains sprinkled here and there: Sam’s fellow Khaki Scouts agree early on to hunt him down with weapons against their Scout Master’s wishes; Tilda Swinton’s late-game turn as the ominously nameless Social Services plays bad with icy demeanor, but as her lack of name implies, she’s less of a character here than she is a looming, dangerous situation Sam has to avoid in the last 30 minutes of the film, leaving her character feel a little wasted in hindsight.
Moonrise Kingdom is, however, replete with Anderson’s noticeably eclectic and approachable humor: his situations are almost always brimming with humor and magic that manages to come across as both ridiculous and totally appropriate. Pairing absolute stylistic likability with sincere commentary about learning to love and live (and learning to love and live again), Anderson once again crafts a rewarding yarn that manages to both entertain and enlighten audiences. So grab a ticket when you can: I guarantee it’ll be an illuminating experience (okay, pun aside, you’ll dig it)!