I surprised myself, a few weeks ago, to realize that I was nothing but excited to see Moonrise Kingdom. After The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, which I liked less and less the more I sat with it, I became suspicious of Anderson, suspicious enough to skip out on The Darjeeling Express.
It would be easy to look around and generalize from whole neighborhoods of making that all poetry is a poetry of childhood. You could sell writing seminars on Molokai organized around this principle. You could get some halfway good art. It isn’t true, but Wes Anderson is in no small part responsible for making it believable.
Once again, Anderson (co-writing with Roman Coppola) brings us into a world of familial insufficiency. Suzy is mod before her time in heavy turquoise eyeshadow, teetering on the precipice of pubescence. The music that introduces her heightens this — it’s a Benjamin Britten opera, played on a record to introduce art music to children. It’s not immediately clear what’s wrong with her, but she’s not quite at home with her young brothers or her big house, and she’s forever staring outwards through a pair of binoculars.
Sam Shakusky, on the other hand, is missing altogether. He’s gone rogue from the Khaki Scouts, a idyll of fussy 50’s masculinity. As his beleaguered scout master (Ed Norton) enlists the help of the local police (Bruce Willis), we learn that Sam is a full-blown orphan, quickly running out of foster parents.
Soon Suzy will be missing, too, fled the coop to join Sam, her love of a year in epistolary conspiracy. Sam draws on every bit of his scouting knowledge to escort Suzy across the New England island where she lives and he attends camp in search of a spot of beach they can call their own. The lives of the responsible adults–the scout master, the police, Suzy’s parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) churn like the seawater in the approaching storm as they try to find them.
While their escapade earns a few Badlands references, this is really Anderson in high Melendez/Schulz mode. (Anderson told critic Matt Zoller Seitz that he and Owen Wilson “conceived Rushmore hero Max Fischer as Charlie Brown plus Snoopy” — Seitz’s five-part series on Anderson’s influences is worth watching in its entirety.) While halfway to second base is far more sex than Charlie Brown ever knew, Sam and Suzy’s seriousness is straight out of the Peanuts comics.
There’s nothing pure about Sam and Suzy’s hearts–their rages drive them to bloody violence, and though there’s a stylized 50’s gee-whiz Leave It To Beaver quality about the Khaki Scouts, they feel as much at home in a mental hygiene warning filmstrip as in an anodyne TV show. Anderson doesn’t present an idealized version of childhood so much as a heroic one.
Moonrise Kingdom is wholly enchanting. It isn’t shallow, but it is simpler than Anderson’s previous movies, and it stays that way by never really entangling generations the way Rushmore and The Life Aquatic did. Howard Blume and Max Fischer’s battle royale was a lover’s rivalry and a surrogate-parricide. In The Life Aquatic, Owen Wilson’s Ned was too similar to his father Zissou, and their miseries amplified each other’s, dragging the movie ever lower in a vicious circle of melancholy.
Here, the heroic world of children is sealed off from the mundane world of adults. Childhood is a stage, and disappointment exists in the wings, but the play is too exciting to notice the disappointments until the play is over.
As in many things Wes Anderson, the peripheral delights are exquisite. Ed Norton’s scoutmaster plays out an entire redemption saga with Harvey Keitel as his foil. Bob Balaban is a Greek chorus with a weather balloon and a good knowledge of tribal history. Tilda Swinton plays a whirlwind force of institutional authority in an indigo cape that sits on her like a constructivist monument. Murray and McDormand’s marriage is a fully realized nest of sorrows. And there are gorgeous bird costumes that go with the Britten opera, Noye’s Fludde.