by Richard von Busack
There’s one unposed moment in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. (Moonrise Kingdom tickets and showtimes here.) Frances McDormand plays Laura, a raging mother—she shouts at her children through a bullhorn most of the time.
Her rebellious daughter, Suzy (Kara Hayward), ran away. When Laura discovers the girl, hiding at the secluded cove that gives the movie its name, she picks up Suzy bodily. This unpremeditated gesture sticks out from an otherwise exquisitely art-directed, scrupulously composed, Kodachromed magic playset of a movie.
Moonrise Kingdom is, in a word, adorable. Watching it is like going into a dismayingly expensive toyshop. The feeling of ingratitude, however, is worse, since this toyshop is filled with mid-1960s items, so recognizable to a child of those days. Anderson was born on May Day 1969, so Moonrise Kingdom exudes nostalgia for an age he didn’t know.
In September 1965, gifted 12-year-olds Suzy and Sam (Jared Gilman) head off to the wilderness of the fictional New England island of New Penzance. A sad constable (Bruce Willis) and an intrepid “Khaki Scouts” leader (Edward Norton) go looking for them.
Anderson twists the story around a bit. When the two runaways meet in a meadow, we flash back to their first meeting, when the local Protestant church was staging Benjamin Britten’s Noye’s Fludde. Suzy was prettily befeathered, playing the raven in the old mystery play.
The amour fou began at first glance: “Something happened to us.” It’s fortunate that Sam’s skills as a woodsman can keep the pair safe. What they don’t know is that Hurricane Maybelline is heading for the island.
Moonrise Kingdom resembles something like the Max Fischer Players version of Gun Crazy or Badlands. The fleeing kids chill down their emotions. Gilman, a round-faced youngster with glasses and a coon-skin cap, acts as smooth as Belmondo.
Hayward’s Suzy is well cast; she has a jaw that matches McDormand’s, and the same clipped uninflection when she talks. Suzy, who wears a serious amount of dark-blue eye shadow, and a Bonnie Parker beret, harbors dreams of the Rive Gauche. One of the few things she took when she left her home was a Francoise Hardy 45rpm and a portable record player.
Maybe The Fantastic Mr. Fox was Anderson’s best film because he could pose his puppets by hand. Gilman and Hayward demonstrate flawless precociousness, but the conceit proves uneven. Sometimes, the film plays out like Our Gang, with a camp of kids acting like adults, like Sam’s gang of fellow scouts, and the flashes of slapstick lightning. Sometimes, it’s as ooky as Alan Parker’s Bugsy Malone, when there are supposed to be smokier, heavier feelings.
The adults are all duds compared to the purity of the children, naturally. The searchers might be better off looking for themselves; they’ve ruined their lives. The proactive characters are military types, called in when the crisis heightens.
Harvey Keitel plays the Scout commander, who has a Nathan Brittles mustache. Jason Schwartzman shows up as the chaplain at the Khaki Scout camp at Ft. Ivanhoe. He’s a worldly cynic, with mirrored sunglasses like a mid-1960s Italian priest. As Suzy’s father, Bill Murray reprises the checked-out, drinker’s gloom he embodied in Rushmore.
Anderson’s toy showboat is keeled with adult regret. And being Anderson, he has given Moonrise Kingdom a heavyweight soundtrack, with Alexandre Desplat and much tender and obscure Britten, especially “The Cuckoo” from his songs for Friday Afternoons. This choral music fits in strangely well with Hank Williams.
Anderson’s film nods to Poe’s “Annabel Lee” and the young Humbert Humbert’s seaside holiday with “Annabel Leigh” in Lolita. But the coolness and precociousness keep a glass barrier up, as thick as a store window.
Once again, Anderson works in the uneasy space between an expensive children’s book and a fable for adults. Moonrise Kingdom has dollhouse aesthetics and New Yorker cartoon punch lines. It’s a boutique gift that might be given from an uncomfortable parent to an uneasy child.