If Woody Allen is the king of neurosis, then Wes Anderson may just be the king of quirk. Each of his films is of an idiosyncratic nature – the type that is perfect for art houses and often overlooked by Joe Schmo moviegoer. Even his last feature, Fantastic Mr. Fox (his first foray into the world of animation), which opened in a great number of chain theaters, was too much for the general public to handle. A wonderful family film, bolstered by impressive vocal talent (George Clooney, Meryl Streep), it was ultimately bypassed in favor of junk food cinema – or just plain junk – like 2012 and Old Dogs.
The title of his latest film, Moonrise Kingdom, could give the impression of a fantasy world. Perhaps one that remains desolate until the moon rises and shines a brilliant light on its inhabitants. But this particular kingdom is not one ruled by kings or lords, or has serfs tending the fields. Rather it is a fantasy world set on a sparsely-populated island off the New England coast in 1965, and it is one crawling with curiosities imagined by Anderson and his co-writer Roman Coppola.
Central to the story are children, specifically a boy scout and the girl he loves. Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) is a 12-year-old Khaki Scout who quits his troop, steals a bunch of supplies and runs away to reunite with Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward), his pre-teen ladylove. Much like his The Royal Tenenbaums, it is children who dictate the story’s success. While Anderson and Coppola’s pre-teen years occurred in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s both show a fondness for adolescence of the ‘60s period and how we as youths may have imagined such circumstances. By placing the emphasis on this point of view, rather than the all-star cast of luminaries in adult roles, viewers subconsciously are able to walk in the shoes of these 12-year olds.
Starting inside the interior of the Bishop household, the camera subtly pans between the rooms as we are introduced to the Bishops in what appears to be a life-size pre-fabricated dollhouse. We see Suzy, her parents and her brothers. The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra soon fills the house, played from a battery-operated record player. The music is preceded by narration that leads into each orchestral arrangement, introducing the listener to woodwinds, brass section, et al. Its uniqueness holds true to the family’s sensibility. Much more than the music of the period: The Kingston Trio, Elvis, and The Beatles among others.
The opening sequence is followed up shortly thereafter by a scene that evokes The Shawshank Redemption, specifically the moment where Warden Norton discovers that Andy Dufresne has flown the coop. However, the warden in this instance is Scout Master Randy Ward (Edward Norton), Andy is Sam Shakusky, and the coop is the Khai Scout campsite.
When both Sam and Suzy go on the run a search party mobilizes to find them. Among the searchers is Suzy’s mother (Francis McDormand), who just so happens to be having an affair with the island’s lone policeman (Bruce Willis dropping the John McClane act as a reserved, tight-lipped servant of the law), and father (Bill Murray). Both are bickering lawyers whose love seems to be held in contempt of marriage. Murray, who has been Anderson’s good luck charm ever since the writer-director cast him in Rushmore, again delivers the goods as a reservist man who becomes annoyed at Willis’ Captain Sharp – going as far to take off his shoe and throw it at his head – and his handling of finding the missing children. As Austin Powers might say, “Who throws a shoe? Honestly.”
Bob Balaban pops in from time to time as the local island historian, offering perfunctory narration as if trying to entice tourism. Had this been anything but a Wes Anderson comedy some might find this odd in its inclusion, and even if it’s meant as tongue-in-cheek it serves a purpose.
Even with such recognizable faces filling out the supporting roles, it is the casting of newcomers Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman that drive the quirky comedy. With undeniable chemistry, these star-crossed lovers are a quality match. Both their characters show strong independence. Sam is an orphan and his stint as a Khaki Scout has taught him to be resourceful. Suzy may be the maladjusted nuisance of the Bishop household, which may explain why her parents felt the need the purchase a how-to book on how to cope with a “troubled child.” However, as the comedy would go on to illustrate, Suzy and Sam are smarter than most of their adult counterparts.
The theme of young love isn’t a novel concept, but the way Anderson employs it certainly is. Each character has their own qualities that identify them. For Suzy it is her binoculars and young adult books (the latter of which have been made into animated shorts, accessible online, and most likely ported over to the eventual home video release). Sam relaxes by taking a few puffs from his pipe.
From dancing on an island inlet to experiencing that first kiss, Suzy and Sam personify that type of soul-mate love that John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John sang soundly about in Grease‘s “Summer Nights.” How coincidental it is then that the inlet is named Summer’s End. Their romance is almost allegorical, maybe even biblical in its depiction. As the adults try to pull them apart, Mother Nature intervenes, delivering a great flood that threatens to envelop parts of the island.
Moonrise Kingdom includes the prerequisite off-kilter, deadpan comedic moments we’ve come to expect from Anderson, in this his seventh film. The humor is intellectual but is low-key as not to patently offend those expecting something of the middling to lowbrow variety. With strong central characters by a pair of newcomers and an eclectic soundtrack – including Alexandre Desplat score and songs from Hank Williams – Kingdom is a worthy cure-all for the summer’s slate of hyper-inflated, special-effects driven blockbusters. Do yourself a favor and enjoy this humorous, well-written comedy. It’s good brain food.
Director: Wes Anderson Writer: Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola Notable Cast: Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward, Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Bob Balaban
Travis Leamons is one of the Inside Pulse Originals and currently holds the position of Managing Editor at Inside Pulse Movies. He's told that the position is his until he's dead or if "The Boss" can find somebody better. I expect the best and I give the best. Here's the beer. Here's the entertainment. Now have fun. That's an order!