Director: Wes Anderson
Stars: Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward, Bruce Willis
Plot: Two kids cause a scandal in their New England community by running away together, but a search party is not far behind.
Wes Anderson films can be an acquired taste if you find his quirky style hard to swallow. He packs his casts with star names, usually Bill Murray (and at least one of the Wilson brothers), his screenplays are full of knowing references and the characters’ lines are often made up of a string of one-liners. So you could say that Moonrise Kingdom, which is probably the least revealing title of a film plot ever, is the archetypal Anderson film, which bears all the hallmarks of the elements that make his films so unique and instantly recognisable.
On a New England island called New Penzance in 1965, orphan Sam Shakusky (Gilman) attends a ‘Khaki Scout’ summer camp led by Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton). Suzy Bishop (Hayward) lives on the island with her guardians Walt (Bill Murray) and Laura (Frances McDormand) and her three younger brothers. Sam and Suzy had met the previous summer during a church performance of Noye’s Fludde and have corresponded ever since as pen-pals, during which time they make a pact to run away together. Sam escapes from the camp and brings his camping equipment with him, while Suzy carries her cat, a number of books and a record player. They happen upon a secluded cove, where they decide to stay for a while – and call it ‘Moonrise Kingdom’.
Meanwhile, the New Penzance community start frantically searching for the intrepid pair of adventurers, led by Police Captain Sharp (Willis). Eventually, after a few days of much fretting and angst, Sam and Suzy are finally discovered in their tent on a beach. Sam goes to stay with Captain Sharp awaiting the arrival of Social Services (Tilda Swinton), who is due to place him within a ‘juvenile refuge’, as his foster parents have refused to have him back. Sam’s fellow scouts, who barely warmed to him initially, decide to help him and Suzy to run away again. Suzy, Sam and the scouts seek the help of Cousin Ben (Jason Schwartzman), who works at a larger camp called Fort Lebanon. When disaster strikes, the two young delinquents find their path to true love in danger of being thwarted by nature itself.
Wes Anderson has really outdone himself this time with Moonrise Kingdom. Not only is the plot about as cringe worthily twee as is possible to get, for the entire running time there’s chock loads of deadpan humour which is fine at first, but after half an hour or so it gets far too tedious. Anderson’s style is well-documented, but you need to be in the right frame of mind to sit through one of his films (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is a classic example) and, once again, Moonrise is no exception. If you look at a film such as Groundhog Day, which stars Anderson stalwart Bill Murray, the straight humour worked extremely well, because the superbly crafted screenplay held everything together and didn’t feature a fatal overdose of ‘knowing’ references and nods or winks to the audience. You could easily say that the emotional detachment on view in many of Anderson’s films is his undoing – how are we possibly meant to have empathy for characters who spout one-liners like a stand-up comedian who just goes for the punch lines, one after another? Deliberately placing a pause at which point we are supposed to laugh (certain radio DJs are guilty of this too) may work occasionally, but irritation sets in all too easily for it to be an enjoyable experience throughout.
On the plus side, the cast is a stellar one. Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand and Tilda Swinton roll off the tongue like a dream even though pretty much all of them are playing completely against type. Willis is the real stand-out as a dour-faced cop who appears bewildered that he actually has to do something instead of sitting around. Swinton appears towards the end in an inspired piece of characterisation – her antithesis of Mary Poppins as ‘Social Services’ serves to at least lighten the mood when it is very much-needed. The two runaways, played by film debutants Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, are terrific in their roles as the film’s heart and soul. They are definitely ones to watch for the future, especially Hayward, who steals every single scene in which she features. Wes Anderson’s direction and Robert Yeoman’s cinematography also deserve a lot of credit. The landscape of New Penzance (aka Rhode Island) is beautifully filmed, but there is also a fantastic attention to detail in recreating an idyllic 1960s paradise, in which many a childhood will be remembered.
If you enjoyed similarly quirky films such as Son of Rambow and Submarine, then Moonrise Kingdom is sure to satisfy. Unfortunately, for those who like their humour to be much more relaxed and natural rather than forced, almost to the point of snobbery, then you’re better off giving this a miss. If Wes Anderson is going to win over more fans, he is going to have to concentrate on making his films more accessible than blood in the proverbial stone.