Anderson Creates a Perfect Kingdom
I make no qualms about being a pretty big Wes Anderson fan. I've liked everything from Rushmore to the Darjeeling Limited, with some resonating more than others. However, with Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson has eclipsed his previous films and solidifies his position as one of the most original, entertaining directors still willing to take a chance on a new concept.
In this case, Anderson steps back in time to 1965 to the island of New Penzance, where a couple of misfits - one a boy, an orphan who may be "emotionally disturbed" and one a girl with her own violent tendencies that has her family trying to figure out how to cope with her. They both find each other, write letters all summer and then decide to go on their own adventure, where they solidify their young love.... a love that may be all too fleeing as social services is on their way.
That's the story, but the real story is with the characters - and, like all Anderson films, the characters are nowhere near typical. The two leads, though untested, absolutely shine. Kara Hayward as the prone-to-violence Suzy and Jared Gilman as Sam, the orphan with mad Khaki Scout skills, but little social skills - just seem tailor-made for the respective roles. Bruce Willis plays against type as the local island police chief - far from an action hero, he is a bit of a schlub, tired and sad. Edward Norton plays the epitome of a scout master - all business and self-ordained superiority while his group of scouts are a mix of technical geniuses and hellions. Bill Murray and Frances McDormand are the lawyer couple and parents of Suzy - they call each other councilor, yell through the house will bullhorns and have little love in their lives. Jason Schwartzman, Harvey Keitel and Tilda Swinton both stop by for some nice cameos and I would be remiss if I didn't mention Bob Balaban's narrator - who pops up at the beginning, middle and end to provide us with just the right amount of information, delivered just like a classic documentation.
As a former scout myself, I appreciated the attention to detail Anderson gives to the scouting scenes. The uniforms, the inspections the Hullabaloo (obviously a reference to Jamborees) - it was easy to see the reality based in the outlandish - no scout I know rode a motorcycle in camp or built a rickety tree house 40 feet in the air - but those scenes were just spot-on in both humor and mundane.
All of Anderson's touches are there - the cinematography is amazing - from his long tracking shots to POV shots from a canoe to the slow-motion dramatic scene - yes, he's done them all before, but he knows where and when to use them for the best effect. Likewise, the music, a mix of classical pieces and Hank Williams, is another high point. Each piece is just perfectly suited to the action on screen and it's been a long time since I've seen a soundtrack that works so well with a film. The attention to detail - in both costumes and set pieces, it likewise amazingly accurate. From the use of an abundance of plaid to the creation of six specific book covers (by six different artists) with names like Shelly and the Secret Universe, The Disappearance of the Sixth Grade and The Girl from Jupiter - it's both the overall look and the little touches, that give the film depth.
The whole movie has a kind of sepia-tone that helps make its 1965, Norman Rockwell-style setting feel all the more nostalgic. Sam and Suzy are both wise beyond their years (like many young characters in Anderson films) but their connection in undeniable. Are there a few outlandish scenes in the film? Yes - especially during the storm - but after so much seriousness and young love, sometimes you need something a little outlandish to lighten the mood.
This is film where, for me, everything just came together - story, character, casting, design, music, cinematography - it was a rare movie that I felt like I could sit through a second viewing immediately following the first, just so I could catch it all again. There's reason this film has consistently has the highest per-theater average week after week, even in limited release - I think this is a film that will speak to people. Yes, it still contains that Anderson quirk, but unlike Rushmore or Royal Tenenbaums or other films before it, I think a general audience can get just as much out of this as a art house crowd or Anderson fans. As it stands now, it may be hard for another movie to top this one in 2012.