From that very first shot... That sideways tracking shot across the vast second floor of the Bishop family house, I was grinning from ear to ear. We are firmly and beautifully implanted back inside the familiar surroundings of a great Wes Anderson film. Cue the Welcome Back, Kotter theme.
The plot follows two young lovers who run off into the woods together. This unearths major drama in the lives of many of the surrounding adults, as a search party is quickly dispatched to bring the kids home.
Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward play the young lovers, Sam and Suzy. Their casting is perfect. They acutely capture the awkwardness, the nervousness, the hopefulness of first love. In one of the film's best moments, young Sam admits to his new girlfriend, that he may indeed pee the bed that night. Her response is so moving. She accepts him completely and without question.
Moonrise Kingdom is Anderson's second screenwriting collaboration with Roman Coppola, after 2007's Darjeeling Limited and it is much more successful. Unlike 99% of romantic comedies, you actually care about these kids. The thought of them being split apart is awful. They belong together and we, the audience know this. It's only the stubborn adults that take their time to catch on.
Bill Murray and Frances McDormand play the girl's parents Mister and Mrs. Bishop, both of whom are borderline-OCD attorneys. Murray hilariously sulks around with his mysteriously blackened eye. McDormand manically addresses her children via a megaphone. Both are reliably great but, the real stand outs from the cast are Bruce Willis and the children.
For the first time since perhaps Unbreakable, Willis actually plays a character we haven't already seen him portray. As Captain Sharpe, he is a schlubby, sad loner. Yes, we've seen him play cops before, but here he drops the macho, alpha-male posturing. Sharpe is a guy who has been very lonely and very bored for a very long time and, it shows. But when called to action, he doesn't hesitate.
In Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson attempts what I can only describe as 'the quaint action sequence'. Willis and Edward Norton (as the naive Scout Master Ward) will both get wonderful hero moments but, these are children's storybook versions of hero moments. In particular, Willis' big scene almost feels like it was drawn in crayon. (Yes, that is a compliment.)
The tenacious Sam (Gilman) reminded me of a youthful Jason Schwartzman (who also cameos here as a nickel-hungry Khaki scout leader of a nearby camp) in Rushmore. The tragic anti-hero Max Fischer: That charismatic, cocky kid who hasn't even seen a mere sliver of the world but, acts like he has. It's rare to get so many amazing performances out of children of this age. Anderson hit the jackpot with Gilman and Hayward and kept going. Every single kid in the film nails their scenes.
Anderson's aforementioned style has always been well documented. That everything in its right place attention to detail. Here, those Wes Anderson-y traits are naturally and effortlessly infused into the picture. Perhaps his stop-motion work on Fantastic Mr. Fox taught him a thing or two, visually speaking. Every moment is pared down to its essential elements.
This film is all muscle, no fat. Example: Tilda Swinton's character is simply named Social Services. That is the role she plays, so that is her name. Nothing more is required.
Seeing a new Wes Anderson film is like running into an old friend. You chuckle as you remember: "Oh yeah, this is how he likes to do it." The man has his own distinct style but, that is hardly a groundbreaking observation.
I write this stupidly assuming you've seen every other Wes Anderson movie. Go ahead, watch them all. (And then thank me later.) A charming detail that pops up in every WA film: His male protagonists are all comically bad fist-fighters. This leads to one of the film's funniest and most shocking reveals. Nope, I didn't see that one coming. Ouch. (This scene gets so intense, that I could actually be referring to a couple different things. Ah, you'll see.)
Anderson's use of music here may surprise his hardcore fan base. Much of the film is ingeniously scored by the recordings of a composer named Benjamin Britton, titled The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra. They were pieces of music designed to teach children about the various sections of an orchestra, as voiced/ narrated by a young child. Initially, I was off-put by this but, by the end, those pieces of music feel like they'd been written for the movie. Another utterly inventive, original choice.
My only criticisms fall on the use of CGI, which felt like an uncharacteristic choice for Anderson. The problem with such a wonderfully analog movie like Moonrise Kingdom is-- when you suddenly try to integrate harebrained CGI-- after 70-odd minutes of vintage record players, kooky wood grain and water-logged khaki, that integration inevitably fails. The visual textures of the film are so well defined-- so deftly presented, that when that pesky CGI appears, I totally balked. It didn't look as convincing as the rest of the world around it. A slight flaw in an otherwise immaculate picture.
All that aside, I really do think Moonrise Kingdom is the first great film I've seen all year. We've had a couple cool movies (*Cough* The Avengers) but, nothing like this. You feel good watching this movie, and not in a sappy/ guilty pleasure way. This is Wes Anderson's best film since Rushmore.
Tony Hinds is a Canadian writer who studied film at the University of Winnipeg. In addition to ShowbizMonkeys.com, Tony has reviewed films for Step On Magazine and The Uniter. You can find Tony on Twitter.