There is never a doubt that Moonrise Kingdom is a Wes Anderson film. From the opening credit sequence to the final shot the writer/director’s latest is filled with his voice and style. I haven’t always been Anderson’s biggest fan, as at times I think he sacrifices substance for style (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and to a lesser extent Rushmore), but I enjoyeed The Darjeeling Limited and appreciated The Fantastic Mr. Fox enough to include it on a list of my the Best Films of 2009.
Anderson’s latest is a bit of a departure as it focuses on a pair of 12 year-old characters (rather than his usual choice of an ensemble of thoroughly damaged and eccentric adults). Sam (Jared Gilman) is an orphaned Khaki Scout marooned on a small New England island with no paved roads and a group of unfriendly companions. Suzy (Kara Hayward) is the problem child of a pair of lawyers (Frances McDormand, Bill Murray) more comfortable discussing legal briefs than feelings.
When the pair meet-cute, as only happens in the movies, Sam and Suzy become fast pen pals and eventually decide to run away together three days before the worst storm in the island’s recorded history. As you’d expect from and Anderson film, the script embraces the absurd as not only do we get the local church group performing Noye’s Fludde in a film about a flood, and one of the scouts delivering a rousing speech to his compatriots more in tune with a B-list war movie or western, but the sequence involving the deputized (and armed) Khaki Scouts trying to bring Sam back to camp is as amusing as it is ridiculous.
Although there are several times the film puts Sam, Suzy, or both in extreme jeopardy we never need fret over their livelihood. Anderson, when he doesn’t get in his own way, is a great storyteller, and Moonrise Kingdom gives us a tale worthy of our attention. We’re pretty sure things will turn out well in the end, as in the suitcase full of young adult novels Suzy insisted on bringing with her, even if we’re not quite sure exactly how this will happen.
The cast is rounded out by Edward Norton in an earnest turn as the local Scout Master who looses his entire troop, Tilda Swinton as an officer from Social Services, Bob Balaban as the film’s narrator (providing facts about the island, the storm, and filling in gaps of Sam and Suzy’s story), and Bruce Willis as the local Police Captain with a complicated relationship of his own. There are also a pair of humorous cameos which I won’t spoil here.
Almost all the dialogue, including that of the two young leads is delivered in Anderson’s clipped deadpan style. When the lines are short the young leads do a surprisingly good job with a very natural delivery. However, at times the film asks a little too much of Suzy and Sam (or the other Khaki Scouts) and the rhythm doesn’t quite work as the stilted dialogue comes off more like an awkward table read than a final take.
Although the adults do a terrific job in their individual roles (both Willis and Norton do their best to steal the film, reminding us of what they can do when challenged with a good script) the film succeeds or fails on its two leads. Gilman and Hayward are young enough to come off natural in their roles and perfectly convey the awkward scenes between a pair of outcasts who have finally found a best friend and will do whatever it takes to keep them.
Moonrise Kingdom may not be Anderson’s best, but it is a hugely entertaining film with wit, humor, and real emotion buried just under the surface of the director’s trademark style.