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Movie Review: Moonrise Kingdom

May 29, 2012
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I originally was going to write that Moonrise Kingdom was, at 94 minutes, among Wes Anderson’s shortest films, but after researching the running times of his previous work, it actually is right in the middle–shorter than The Life Aquatic (119 minutes) and The Royal Tenenbaums (109 minutes), but longer than Rushmore (93 minutes) and Bottle Rocket (92).

I think the difference is in the pacing (though all of Anderson’s films seem longer to me when they’re not on the big screen), because it didn’t feel lagging at any point. As good as Bottle Rocket and Rushmore are, I felt both started strong and then quickly slowed down, only to start rolling again in the third act. Moonrise is funny, engaging, and delightful all throughout.

The time is 1965, the place is a secluded New England island where the narrator (Bob Balaban) gives us a quick rundown of its history and the typical way of life–nothing much happens, and the mail is flown in every so often via waterplane. The inhabitants are the Bishops: Walt (Bill Murray), Laura (Frances McDormand), their sons, and their daughter Suzy (Kara Hayward); and the Khaki Scouts, something like the Junior Woodchucks but without the guidebook. They’re led by Scout Master Randy Ward (Edward Norton), channeling his naive but well-meaning mouth-breather Sheldon Mopes from Death to Smoochy, who considers himself a Scout Master first but an 8th-grade math teacher second (after some consideration). Among his rag-tag rascals is Sam (Jared Gilman), an orphan who goes AWOL to meet up with Suzy so they can run away together. There’s also the local law enforcement, Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), who’s romantically involved with Laura. It’s a lonely island.

While Sam and Suzy (is it intentional that they share the same names as the protagonists of the song “Muskrat Love”?) traverse the island’s old Chickchaw Indian Trail, Captain Sharp, Scout Master Randy, his troop, and Walt and Laura are all on their trail, as is the wonderfully named Social Services (Tilda Swinton), who plans to have Sam institutionalized since his parents have unadopted him. And all this set against what the narrator refers to ominously as the Great Storm of 1965.

The opening is classic Anderson, with practically every frame looking like a mugshot — either people are shot straight on or in profile. It may be a director’s quirk, but it helps to emphasize the stodgy home life of Suzy who, if her maladjustment weren’t already apparent, comes with the manual How to Cope with a Very Troubled Child. She spends her days reading fantasy novels and listlessly waiting for a letter from Sam after meeting him the previous year at a church production of Noyle’s Ark. Sam is the consummate woodsman–some of his lessons, such as how to build a perfect camp, work, while others, such as tossing pine needles into the air to test the wind’s direction, don’t. Both are fed up with their families, whether real or metaphorical, and decide to build their own. The two speak like they’re in an episode of Dragnet–fast, serious, and flat, which may not call for much on the actors’ parts but is effective nonetheless.The look is gorgeous, as can be expected. At times it almost feels like a home movie, or a film shot in the ’60s. It’s not quite crisp, but I think that’s the point; the woods, for example, have a rustic, sepia-tinged color that both matches and clashes with the Troops’ outfits. The best comparison to Anderson’s earlier work is, I think, the lineup of Etheline Tenenbaum’s suitors in The Royal Tenenbaums: slightly quirky, slightly fantastic.

The performances are another plus. Nearly everyone is a standout, but I think Willis is the biggest surprise. Watching his tender portrayal of the lone police officer and his growing concern for Sam is a nice reminder that, among all the action stars of the ’80s, there’s a reason he was considered the best. In other words, you’re not aware that it’s Bruce Willis. Murray’s comic subtleties are perfect for touching the right notes of humor with his character’s lack of care for largely everything save the chastity of his daughter. And Norton, as I said before, is at his best when he’s the semi-clueless wanderer. There’s also a few surprises that pay off very well.

I don’t want to spoil too many of the delights; suffice to say, it should be a pleasure for any Anderson fan as well as anyone interested in becoming one–or any movie lover in general. There’s only a handful of lags, but it makes up for them. With each movie, one can see Anderson advancing as a director, adding yet another asset to his comprehensive skills as a director and writer. I look forward to the next.

One more thing: I think many moviegoers, even fans of Anderson, will be uneasy at how far he goes in one sequence portraying the physical relationship between the two pre-teens. At least I was. A few of the images and bits of dialogue may be uncomfortable, maybe even shocking to some, but the scene never feels cheap. In the very opening, Anderson repeatedly reinforces his idea of the early 1960s as a time when people listened to introductory analyses of Classical music, ate dinner together, went to summer camp to build character (echoes of Calvin’s father resonate), and in general upheld stern, conservative values. The irony, at least in the film (and it makes a number of jokes to emphasize this) was that it created a society that was permissive in every way–smoking, drinking, child-negligence–except toward sex. And the clash of traditional values with the sexual revolution is among the film’s most dominant themes. What better way to show it than with two, young, social outcasts? And to break out some elementary analysis, there’s a reason Suzy is a raven in the church play–ravens are the omens of death, in this case, the death of the “old” generation and its values (and I don’t think I need to mention what the storm represents).

Rating: 4/5 Moonrise Kingdom is rated PG-13. Directed by Wes Anderson. Written by Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola. Starring Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Jason Schwartzman, Bob Balaban, Jared Gilman, and Kara Hayward.

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