Silver Screen: Moonrise Kingdom ****1/2
A pair of pre-teen romantics hatch an elaborate plan to run away together in Wes Anderson's whimsical Moonrise Kingdom. The story evokes the miniaturized epic scale of campfire legends native to the setting, a summer camp on a bucolic island off the coast of New England.
Like all good legends, the gently catastrophic events associated with this precocious love story take place a long time ago, in 1965. Sam (Jared Gilman) is the ablest but least popular member of the Khaki Scouts, a loose ensemble of kids whose parents deposited them for a few months in the care of the eternally earnest Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton). Sam finds a kindred spirit in Suzy (Kara Hayward), a delicate, morose girl plenty familiar to the Anderson oeuvre. Suzy is isolated, too literally stuck on the same undeveloped island as the camp, in a house with her younger siblings and disaffected psychiatrist parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand).
Sam spirits Suzy away in a canoe toward an idyllic cove on a more remote part of the island. They're pursued by the scout master, who rallies the whole troop to aid in the search. Meanwhile, Suzy's panicked parents enlist the help of the island's lone police officer, the mild-mannered Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis). And it's all narrated by Bob Balaban, playing something like the stilted, awkward host of a dull documentary travelogue.
The above reference to Moonrise Kingdom as whimsical may seem redundant-- that label could apply to every Wes Anderson film. But Moonrise Kingdom is more overtly fanciful (detractors might say more twee) than his last live-action feature, The Darjeeling Limited, which adopted a deliberate pace and was more explicitly concerned with adult themes of loss, regret, and the elusiveness of spirituality.
Darjeeling tipped further into drama than any of Anderson's previous work, but at its core it was, like all Anderson movies, about childhood. Every Anderson movie is about children and parent/child relationships: Brothers seek to repair childhood bonds following the death of their father in Darjeeling, an adopted son reconnects with his father in The Life Aquatic, and the whole emotionally stunted Tenenbaum clan seeks to transcend their relationships as kids. However, this is the first time since Rushmore, still perhaps Anderson's best work, that the writer/director uses a child protagonist, and it's an ideal fit. He coaxes magnificent performances out of newcomers Hayward and Gilman, who capture the momentous scale of first love, which never feels immature to first lovers.
And, of course, they wear lots of cute costumes and come equipped with a propmaster's bag of gear-- old books, a record player, et cetera. This is not Wes Anderson stretching the bounds of his comfort zone, it's Anderson at his Andersony-est, which is fantastic. All the filmmaker's hallmarks are here, from the embellished diorama of Suzy's parents' house, the meticulously orchestrated tracking shots, the wonderfully fussy set designs. Anderson may be reworking the same thematic concerns, but he's also continually refining one of the most unique and distinctive aesthetics in modern cinema. Like his characters Sam and Suzy (and Max Fischer and Richie Tenenbaum), Anderson's prime preoccupation is creating his own tiny, personalized, perfect world.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.