About thirty seconds into Moonrise Kingdom, you may find yourself thinking, “Oh no, here we go again.” The perfectly symmetrical shots, the bold primary colours, the obsessively detailed art direction, the quirky characters who only seem to own one pair of clothes—yes, this is a Wes Anderson movie. Few filmmakers possess a style as distinctive—or as potentially grating. As The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited proved, the Anderson trademarks that made Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums so delightful can be kind of insufferable when applied to subpar material. (It certainly doesn’t help that Anderson’s deadpan style—once regarded as utterly unique in American cinema—has basically been the default mode for indie comedy for the last decade, inspiring everything from Napoleon Dynamite to Me, You, and Everyone We Know to Little Miss Sunshine).
Moonrise Kingdom is by far Wes Anderson’s most Wes Anderson-y movie to date, every bit as quirky, twee, and obsessively colour coordinated as the trailer suggests. It would be just about unwatchable if it weren’t so damn charming. What starts out as a turgid exercise in style (or, to be less generous, an epic OCD freakout) quickly evolves into what will no doubt be remembered as the most entrancing comedy of the year. It comes dangerously close to the edge of self-parody, but Anderson has made another instant classic that can stand up alongside Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and his delightful sojourn into the world of claymation, The Fantastic Mr. Fox.
Set in the fictitious island town of New Penzance in 1965, the movie follows a cub scout/orphan (Jared Killman) who meets a local girl (Kara Hayward) during a performance of Benjamin Britten’s Noye’s Fludde. The two briefly exchange letters, then run off together to live in the woods. On their trail is the local sheriff (Bruce Willis, brilliantly cast against type) and the local cub master (Edward Norton). Anderson introduces us to each of the characters using show-offy tracking shots (and a distressing number of swish pans) through sets that look more like dollhouses than environments that people actually live in. It’s the purest expression of the Anderson style to date; the only problem is that, in its purest form, the Anderson style is enormously overbearing.
But once the story is set in motion, the movie suddenly comes to life. A huge reason why it works so well is the chemistry between the two young leads, both 13-years-old at the time of production. The scenes with the two alone in the woods together have a spontaneity and warmth that perfectly captures the essence of being 13-years-old. Another reason the movie works so well is the chemistry between the two adult leads. As the cub scout leader, Edward Norton begins the movie as an absurd, one dimensional cartoon (“Jiminy Cricket! He flew the coop!”), but gradually develops into one of the film’s most endearing characters. Bruce Willis, playing a very different kind of cop than the one he’s accustomed to, gives a vivid reminder that he can be a great actor when he wants to be. His performance here is easily his best since at least The Sixth Sense or Pulp Fiction. Both actors lend the movie a subtle hint of melancholy that stands in contrast to the young-lovers-on-the-run subplot.
At 93 minutes, Moonrise Kingdom is a briskly paced delight which easily ranks among Wes Anderson’s best films. If he ever decides to shoot in a house that doesn’t have 24/7 housekeeping or occupants that wear costumes, that would be a welcome change of pace. But Moonrise Kingdom proves that even his oldest tricks still have some life in them.