Tender… and cruel… real… and surreal… terrifying… and funny – Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom

In an age of CGI and 3D its refreshing to see one of the American cinemas great aesthetics turn to 16mm for his latest project. That the resulting film is of considerable more visual splendour than any of the digital files produced by his contemporaries will be of little surprise to most.

Moonrise Kingdom opens with a beautiful tracking shot scored to Benjamin Britten. It’s a scenario clearly informed and inspired by Anderson’s adventures on the animated feature Fantastic Mr. Fox, with the set feeling ever more like a giant doll house dissected and drawn apart to act for the camera. This film is the director’s first period piece, set in 1965 and on the eve of a giant storm heading for the tiny New England island on which Moonrise Kingdom takes place. This is especially interesting considering that Anderson’s films rarely have any distinguished sense of time: they most certainly are not defined by such things.

At the centre of the film sit Sam and Suzy, a pair of pre-teens in love and on the run. In their wake follows Suzy’s dysfunctional parentage, and Sam’s former scout troop, along with the island police outfit. The tale is told in Anderson’s particular style: attention to detail is everything, with the director’s cultural influences on display in every scene. In a similar way as he seems to have done so with some of his stylistic traits whilst working in the animation field Anderson may have gleamed some new storytelling attributes too – the high adventure at the heart of Moonrise Kingdom is quite unlike anything we’ve seen from the director before. While the likes of Steve Zissou and Max Fischer might have aspired to certain standings in life, Moonrise Kingdom is that, but straight and earnest.

An ambitious and narratively predictive performance of Britten’s ‘Noye’s Fludde’ (Noah’s Flood) recalls early Anderson, with its grand set design and overt performances reminiscent of a Max Fischer production. Similarly a montage revolving around the lead pair’s pen pal correspondence is equally stylised, with the 1960’s foster home that Sam once called “home” re-imagined as if to be akin to a prison, complete with Greasers and accidental sleepwalking enacted fires brings to mind the opening moments of Rushmore, as that films leads extracurricular activities are outlined. Quirks aplenty lead the way with characters such as Lazy Eye (who wears an eye-patch) and Redford (a kid that looks a lot like Robert Redford) forming part of the not so-elite unit of kids searching for our heroes, while a turtle signed “Albert”, quite literally floats by. 

The cast is filled with newcomers to the Anderson repertoire. In fact, the old guard are in the minority here for the first time in the directors career, with only Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman making appearances alongside an all-new cast of actors. The two leads, Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman are the natural stars of the film, with the pair the films clear protagonists. As with Rushmore this film is fairly well defined as being the tale of a protagonist (well, two), with the ensemble pushed somewhat to the back (this isn’t as sprawling a work as The Royal Tenenbaums, for one). But what an ensemble it is. Edward Norton makes a fantastic return to the fore, providing this film’s slice of Edward Hopper-esque Americana, following in the footsteps of The Darjeeling Limited’s Adrian Brody and Gene Hackman’s patriarch of The Royal Tenenbaums as actors seemingly destined to only work with Anderson once. Bruce Willis, perhaps the unlikeliest addition to the Anderson crew provides a heart rarely seen in the actors career, with he and Frances McDormand teaming up to create a poetic aged analogue of the younger pair at the centre of the picture. Willis’s police officer is scored to the hangdog drawl of Hank Williams, the perfect score to the sombre figure, while Francois Truffaut’s Close Encounters Of The Third Kind interpreter Bob Balaban acts as a kind of omnipresent narrator throughout, even leaning in to the picture at one point to throw the confuddled cast a bone. The old guard of Anderson are on fine form too, with Bill Murray’s manic depression channeling protective father coining such zingers as “beige lunatic” and resorting to shoe throwing in the general direction of those who cross him, while Jason Schwartzman’s small but crucial cameo provides the films biggest laughs.

It’s a beautiful film, with the aforementioned use of 16mm a striking decision on the part of the director. While the perfect medium for capturing the daytime adventures of the pair, the film stock takes on a life of its own when the lights go down. The organic nature of the matter turns it sinister at night. In addition to this, there’s an underlying sense that there is a storm coming throughout. The film opens in the midst of a rainstorm, while the films traditional three-act structure leads up to a third evening of dramatic weather as promised in the films opening narration. The traditional Andersonian influence of Francois Truffaut appears to have shifted somewhat toward’s Truffaut’s companion, Jean-Luc Godard with the latter’s Pierrot Le Fou seemingly being channeled throughout*. The tale of a dysfunctional pair on the run to the beats of a “Boys Own” tale was defined by Godard’s film, so its only natural that Anderson’s film would remind of that. Most importantly perhaps is the nature of the adventure – it’s fantastic, and takes place in a beautifully realised world, with a cast packed with greatness. 

*The Godard film has lent this piece a title too.

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