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TBTS Reviews: Moonrise Kingdom 

July 10, 2012

I’ll dispense with all the Wes Anderson review cliches first, or at least run down the ones that easily come to mind, several of which I understand and even partially agree with. Wes Anderson movies aren’t for everyone, and you either love him or hate him—true. His filmmaking approach tends toward preciousness, formalism, and obviously high self-regard—quite often, indeed. His characters are fussy, self-indulgent, privileged, morose, whiny brats who need nothing more than to get over themselves and stop complaining—sometimes, yes.

And if you’ve disliked previous Wes Anderson films because you just can’t get past some or all of these elements, then so be it. His latest, Moonrise Kingdom, probably isn’t the movie, nor I the reviewer (and Anderson fan), that can change your mind. But for those of us who do favor Anderson’s characteristic modes of storytelling and filmmaking, Moonrise Kingdom is yet another piece of rewarding work. As with Anderson’s other great films, Moonrise offers a wistful melancholy, tempered with sweetness and comedy, and other emotional insights that few other filmmakers can touch. I would also argue that Moonrise Kingdom accomplishes a few things that prior Anderson movies have not, and in many ways it rivals Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums among Anderson’s most appealing films.

First, Moonrise is Wes Anderson’s funniest movie since Rushmore and/or Bottle Rocket. A 5-7 minute segment at a rival kids’ camp, when Jason Schwartzman’s minor but essential (and endearingly sleazy) character, Cousin Ben, is introduced, is jam-packed with antic visual comedy and snappy, winking dialogue. Lead character Sam Shakusky’s fellow campers are a motley collection of wannabe toughs with vaguely ethnic names and a penchant for injuring each other. Their banter is charming. Wes Anderson the writer has always been adroit with crackling, fast-paced dialogue that usually still manages to approximate real-life speech, albeit speech that emerges from above-average familiarity and competence with the topic at hand. Sam and the other kids in Moonrise Kingdom sound nerdy as hell, and they know a lot about a lot of stuff, and it’s quite funny to see those skills juxtaposed with the other standard pose of childhood—the clueless gawk. But I appreciate that about Wes Anderson’s scripts, this one included. Maybe he can’t write any other way, but I’ve also always assumed that Anderson just cares too much about his central characters, and even many secondary ones, to make them stupid. They may behave oafishly and unwisely, usually with great comedic effect, but they also know things and do some things exceedingly well.

Second, even if Moonrise doesn’t exactly depart from the standard, aforementioned “quirks” of Wes Anderson’s body of work, it at least better justifies the use of some of them. Every film since Rushmore has placed an intensive focus on set design, costuming, lighting, camera angles and movement, and other visual, compositional elements. In a typical Anderson scene, it’s easy to feel like you’re watching a meticulously crafted, ornately framed painting that’s somehow become animated. Portraying “reality” is less a priority; hence, the “formalism” charge that’s often hurled in Anderson’s direction. One valid response to that criticism is to ask, “Since when is directorial and compositional (not to mention storytelling) ambition a bad thing?” Moonrise Kingdom gives us another response—what if creating a “fantasy world” is the best way to reveal your truths, specifically when you’re exploring the capacity of children to grapple with (and act on) a profound, ever-deepening longing for fulfillment, freedom, and true human connection? And if you can score some real laughs with some inspired absurdism in your visual elements—Moonrise’s impossibly constructed treehouse, its motorcycle stuck in a tree, its costumed pageant players huddled in a stairwell practicing their recorders—then all the better, right? In other words, I get the argument that all of Anderson’s movies look alike. But if you can also say that no one else makes movies that look like his, and that many of his choices actually enhance his storytelling, as they especially do in Moonrise Kingdom because he’s constructing a world as seen by children, then maybe you can fairly argue that he’s chasing a vision rather than getting stuck in a rut.

Our heroes, plotting their course.

Third, and perhaps most important, I’m hard-pressed to think of any movie with better, more fully human and relatable leading child characters. I’ll leave it to many other reviews to delve into the nuanced charisma of the Sam and Suzy characters, their individual talents and foibles, their burgeoning love affair, their sweet and awkward discovery of sexuality. These components are deeply rewarding and well covered elsewhere. Instead, I’ll offer that Sam and Suzy’s plight, what drove them to action, prompted me to recall for the first time in years a certain feeling that pervaded my own childhood. Moonrise Kingdom also convinced me that Sam and Suzy’s core struggle is probably a universal hallmark of childhood as defined in our Western culture. I saw that struggle—and what child among us doesn’t feel it at least occasionally?—as a wild, inarticulate, inchoate desire to have even a tiny measure of control, however fleeting, over the space one occupies and the company one keeps. So precise was the film’s focus on this motivating factor, and the elaborate plans it spawned, that other potentially great characters such as Suzy’s parents, Sam’s camp counselor, and the social services agent (played with aplomb by Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Ed Norton, and Tilda Swinton, respectively) fell disappointingly far into the background. Even with that star power, these characters were largely lost in the shared fever of Sam and Suzy to escape what they’ve known, to be with each other, to have a room of their own, to build a home and name it as such. Still, that trade was worth making because it allowed Anderson to wring maximum reward from telling of Sam and Suzy’s journey toward and with each other.

I strongly recommend Moonrise Kingdom for the reasons described above. Perhaps the simplest recommendation I can offer is that I’m eager to see the film again. It was that rich, that funny, and that rewarding.

  1. C.M. Tomlin permalink*
    July 10, 2012 4:28 pm

    Great review. Can’t wait to see it.

    I’m very concerned about everyone’s nagging need to see Wes Anderson make a movie that looks different from his six past movies, as if we need to force him to abandon the style and feeling which is so distinctly his own. Wes Anderson is not the first, and he won’t be the last, to employ a trademarkable visuality that makes the viewer immediately know who he or she is watching. Where do we think the word “Hitchcockian” came from? Scorsese made similar-looking films for years, and an astounding number of them are absolute classics.

    This outcry of “hey, here’s more of the same Wes Anderson” is ridiculous. What do these people want to see him make? An adultery thriller? A science-fiction horror? Wes Anderson IS Wes Anderson because his style is, to so many, so instantly comfortable and optimistic. It’s safe to say that after seven films, THAT’S Wes Anderson’s style. And it’s very clear that he does it to near-perfection almost every time. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with trading on a particular style. Of course, critics could hound him into getting outside his comfort zone, so they can later remark that “none of the Wes Anderson magic is evident in this story of a drug deal gone wrong” and watch for an inevitable misstep.

    Let him do him. Every single one of his movies, to me, fills me with a light feeling that I love and which keeps me constantly waiting for his next outing. He’s a wonderful director, and one of the few directors of his generation to have a specific “calling card.”

    Let other directors make other movies. Let Wes Anderson make Wes Anderson movies. We have enough other directors out there willing to make whatever the studio tells them (and that’s part of the problem). Anderson’s not rocking any boats; he’s just making good films that mean something to him — and obviously to many others. Period.

  2. Musehobo permalink
    July 11, 2012 12:45 pm

    Big Anderson fan here. Great review, can’t wait to see it. I loved your comment about revealing truths through a set-up world. Though I would argue that The Royal Tenenbaums is far funnier than Rushmore…it’s just dark humor. Tomlin’s response is classic Tomlin…genius.

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