Moonrise Kingdom – Wes Anderson’s Storybook Masterpiece

Saturday, June 2nd, 2012

Published 6 years ago -

Review by Dan Geddes

Edward Norton … Scout Master Ward

Bruce Willis … Captain Sharp

Bill Murray … Walt Bishop

Tilda Swinton … Social Services

Kara Hayward … Suzy

Jason Schwartzman … Cousin Ben

Frances McDormand … Laura Bishop

Harvey Keitel … Commander Pierce

Jared Gilman … Sam

Bob Balaban … Narrator

Written by Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola

Directed by Wes Anderson


Moonrise Kingdom is a storybook movie and probably Wes Anderson’s best movie since The Royal Tenenbaums or Rushmore (depending on your favorite). Moonrise Kingdom has heart, nostalgia, yearning, and yes, delight in its own artifice. It is a beautiful movie. Anderson is confident enough to continuously delight the audience without straining for big laughs. The story comes first, so Anderson doesn’t cheapen the characters through the humiliation and suffering so often required for knee-jerk laughs.

It recreates the feeling of classic children’s books such as From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, in which sensitive, misunderstood children have a great adventure by running away from home. The fact that Sam, the young hero of Moonrise Kingdom, escapes from camp and uses his “Khaki Scout” skills to survive in the woods makes it an exciting outdoor adventure, like Huckleberry Finn or Treasure Island. The rustic setting gives us a feeling of freedom. Setting in the movie in 1965 also gives it a strong sense of nostalgia. In many ways, we could be in a Truffaut movie, except that it’s a Wes Anderson movie.

The key relationship in the movie is between Sam, a 12 year old orphan and scout, and Suzy, a girl from a “good” family on a small New England island. Their love is idealized and pure, as only youthful love can be. In a delightful flashback, we see how they met the summer before. Even during their first meeting, backstage at a children’s play, we can see how Sam and Suzy are different from other kids. They feel an immediate connection. Later, she slips him a note asking him to write to her, and during their yearlong correspondence they make their plans to escape together.

Sam is like a younger Max Fischer (the hero of Rushmore), earnest and smart behind his black, horn-rimmed glasses. Sam has already gone through multiple sets of foster parents. The fact that his current foster parents have refused to take him back from Khaki camp (even though the foster father acknowledges that Sam is a good boy if troubled) may have precipitated Sam’s decision to run away. Or then again, he’s probably just doing it to be with Suzy.

We see Sam from the outside though; we don’t really feel what it’s like to be in his skin. He’s a resourceful hero more than the sensitive anti-hero you might expect. Sam goes after what he wants with meticulous planning characteristic of nearly all of Anderson’s heroes. The intricacy of the planning is itself delightful and humorous.

Moonrise Kingdom is fairly child-friendly despite its PG-13 rating. It’s mainly about the kids. But not all kids today, or even adults, respond to Anderson’s unusual style. Here it’s not laugh-out-loud funny or particularly sad or dramatic. It’s more of a charming, bittersweet delight, with some of the narrative distance of other well-made Anderson movies.

The child actors, Jared Gilman as Sam and as Kara Hayward as Suzy, give the real stand-out performances. Many of the adult characters don’t leave particularly strong impressions. Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) has some good moments as the bachelor policeman looking for the missing kids. Edward Norton turns in a solid performance as Scout Master Ward. Jason Schwartzman’s Cousin Ben has a touching scene as an adult scout who helps the runaways.

Bill Murray’s Walt Bishop (Suzy’s father) is yet another aging cuckold; he’s actually not in the story very much, but it’s always good to see Murray. His wife, Laura (Frances McDormand) isn’t in the story much either. They are an aging couple whose love has run dry. Harvey Keitel’s scout leader and Tilda Swinton’s shrew from social services are needless cameo performances.

Moonrise Kingdom is another finely crafted Wes Anderson production.  His fans will likely be charmed by this effort. His detractors will probably be irritated by the quirkiness, self-consciousness, fastidiousness, or whatever it is they dislike about Anderson’s work.  Anderson’s literary sensibilities may strike his detractors as elitism; but evoking the nostalgia of forgotten books or music is one of the movie’s goals, so viewers who never experienced such works may not understand what Anderson is trying to do or simply may not want such an experience from a movie.

The pacing and the lack of obviousness may not charm all viewers, but Anderson fans will be pleased. I may go back to the theater to see it again.

Moonrise Kingdom – Further Commentary (Contains Spoilers)

As a storybook movie, Moonrise Kingdom succeeds more than The Royal Tenenbaums. That movie’s first shot showed a cover of a book called The Royal Tenenbaums being checked out of the library.  The beginning of each “chapter” is read by a narrator. The fact that so many of the characters in Tenenbaums are writers (Ethel, Margot, Eli, Raleigh, and Henry), and that we see their book covers (or play bills), further enhances the film’s bookish quality. But The Royal Tenenbaums suggests a book by John Irving or maybe J.D. Salinger more than a children’s story book. Moonrise Kingdom may more closely approximate the feel of a Salinger book more than any of Anderson’s other movies.

Suzy reads imaginary children’s fiction, book titles made up by Anderson, but suggestive of the A Wrinkle in Time series or similar books. Suzy reading to Sam in their private beach tent is a high point of their journey and their intimacy. When they are alone together, what they most want to do is to read. Sam likes her taste in books, which is another reason she trusts him and even loves him.

Sam is very romantic in extending his meticulous planning to include a picturesque location for them to camp, where they enjoy their first kiss. You sense that this was part of his plan. Their first kiss scene is a picture perfect moment: the beautiful beach front; Suzy prancing around in her underwear happy to be free; the French ballad playing on her brother’s portable record player. All the common first-kiss anxieties and obstacles are bested because their hearts are pure; they are not trying to impress each other and they are not nervous. They agree to French kiss (with the French music in the background) and clearly enjoy it. Sam spits immediately after without any self-consciousness—which is funny—but it’s only because there was sand in his mouth, not because she is distasteful. They both feel that he has an erection, and she likes how it feels. It is a beautiful discovery for the both of them, but they’re not ready for sex.

He is fleeing the prospect of being sent to the orphanage by a horrible social services worker (Tilda Swinton). She informs Captain Sharp that Sam may even have to undergo electric shock therapy because of the violence committed against the scouts when they find Sam and Suzy. (But in fact it is actually Suzy who draws blood from the chasing scouts with her left-handed scissors.)

We feel the precariousness of their childhood, its precious transience. “Orphans have more interesting lives.” Sam’s life is full of challenges, but he makes the most of his opportunities, learning to become a crack shot, and an expert outdoorsman. Sam is a worthy hero. He gets a Dickensian or John Irving ending after Captain Sharp’s offer to adopt him (while they are all standing on the dramatic precipice of the church tower in a half-century storm). And he gets the girl.

Suzy is a lot like Margot Tenenbaum. Despite their beautiful home and comfort, she is dissatisfied with her family and with her mother’s infidelity with Captain Sharp. Her discovery of their intimacy through her binoculars recalls other Anderson characters discovering infidelities (Dirk seeing Blume and Miss Cross together, of the PI who discovers Margot with Eli Cash, among many others). She feels personally betrayed. It makes her mother, Laura, seem especially hypocritical when the search party finally finds them alone in a tent. Sam and Suzy’s love seems more pure and less harmful than her mother’s infidelity with Captain Sharp.

Captain Sharp is a good guy, but his life is incomplete. He affirms his humanity by saving Sam from the evil clutches of social services. His affair humanizes him further, as does his supposed lack of intelligence. He’s a hero and worthy of Sam.

Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton) is also a hero, despite the temporary dishonor that his entire troop left him (in order to free Sam from official custody). It’s nice to see Norton as a likeable, capable guy; he’s played so many villains and psychos.

The scouts’ change-of-heart to rescue Sam, even after the wounds they suffer while first trying to apprehend him, is maybe the least “realistic” development in the movie; but as a storybook movie such a development is necessary and even welcome. Sam was socially rejected by the scouts for no good reason and when they realize that he is being taken against his will to a horrible fate, they feel that they have the skills to save him—a fellow scout—and to make up for their earlier rejection of him. The scouts even know to pick up Suzy on the way over.

The scouts’ rescue and the impending once-in-a-half-century storm make up the third act of the movie. Some of the action here gets blurrier to me. When Sam is running away from a band of scouts and is struck by lightning, how is it exactly that he gets away from them? Or later, how do Sam and Suzy get into the church rafters? I’m sure it’s in there somewhere, but on a first-viewing these events were not quite clear to me.

Is there anything wrong with this movie? I’m not sure I like Suzy wielding her left-handed scissors to draw so much blood. It gives the movie some edge, but I got distracted wondering whether Sam and Suzy had just hit some fateful point-of-no-return. It didn’t turn out that way. It’s probably necessary that Sam and Suzy make some kind of stand somewhere, and it’s kind of funny that the confident scouts get turned back by a girl (and Sam with his BB gun). Anderson resorts to using animated scissors to show us that this scene has been cut. It’s a compromise, but it keeps the movie viewable for mature children.

Some critics may object to the how “artificial” some of the shots seem, so symmetrical, and perhaps evocative of Norman Rockwell paintings. Suzy’s parents’ house resembles a doll house. But this is just Anderson’s style, so take it or leave it. All the details in these shots call for repeated viewings. It is designed to be experienced multiple times (like a good storybook). The cinematography (reddish-brownish) is sometimes grainy, suggesting the movies of the mid-1960s. Benjamin Britten’s music complements the film perfectly.

Moonrise Kingdom is one of Anderson’s best efforts, amusing and well-made. The story is pleasing and there are no jarringly wrong scenes (such as the unrealistic gunfight with the pirates that weakened The Life Aquatic). Anderson inspires trust in his audience that he will maintain his high technical standards throughout the movie and not break the story’s spell.

Moonrise Kingdom has all the makings of a classic storybook movie like The Princess Bride—suitable for most audiences, well-crafted and entertaining without resorting to cheap laughs. With Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson adapted a classic children’s tale; with Moonrise Kingdom, he has created his own children’s tale, albeit more intended for adults.


Dan Geddes
2 June 2012

See also reviews of The Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore.

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