It’s incredibly easy to hate Wes Anderson. After all, his style is distinct: a pastiche of unfulfilled adults and detailed, almost detached art designs mirroring their inner discontent, and he’s unapologetic for his many quirks, both good and bad. However, Anderson’s last few films have made steps toward breaking down his singular voice and directorial persona into a more accessible, grounded, but still whimsical and flighty sensibility.
With “Moonrise Kingdom,” Anderson deals with the perils of young love, namely that of Suzy (Kara Hayward) and Sam (Jared Gilman). After a chance meeting at a church pageant the summer before, the duo hatch a plan for Sam to run away from his Eagle Scout group, while Suzy flees from her home, where her parents’ (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) marriage is floundering. Edward Norton’s stern but caring Scout Master immediately begins the search, and gets help from local sheriff Bruce Willis.
Anderson has assembled a splendid cast here, and each role is perfectly suited for its portrayer. Gilman and Hayward, both untested actors, are a strong pair, their chemistry together unexpectedly powerful and their passion and determination when apart inspiring. Edward Norton normally doesn’t play roles so sweet and beaten-down, and he’s clearly having a blast with this sad scout leader with a mission, especially in several quiet moments where he dictates into a recorder. Meanwhile, Bruce Willis gives a warm, gentle and totally lovable performance as a sheriff madly in love with the mother of the girl he’s chasing. It’s hard to remember the last time Willis was this cuddly onscreen.
As “Moonrise Kingdom” develops its narrative, things unfold with a silly, charming beat. The scenes between Gilman and Hayward as they build a quiet campsite together shows touching intimacy in a sexless romance, summing up childhood first loves with a few elegant strokes. Meanwhile, the hunt that the film’s adult cast mounts is consistently funny, and as things escalate and an apocalyptically described storm approaches, Anderson’s script keeps things moving quickly without losing sight of what makes his characters tick and his audience laugh.
One of Anderson’s strongest traits (and something that keeps many of his films from slipping into irritating whimsy) is his ability to translate his characters’ mindset into a film’s aesthetic, and “Moonrise Kingdom” is no exception. The film is full of youthful exuberance, with lots of long, head-on shots spelling out the character’s world and personalities quickly and easily. Anderson loads his scenes with nice visual gags, and there’s a pervasive warmth to the film’s lighting, decorations and costumes that give it a feeling reminiscent of a fleeting childhood memory.
“Moonrise Kingdom” is Anderson working at top form, never faltering from his immaculately designed vision while still telling an emotional, funny and heartfelt story. Fans of his will come to “Moonrise Kingdom” in droves, and find lots to love, but even Anderson skeptics (a camp in which I occasionally include myself – never forget “The Life Aquatic”) might be charmed by the film’s gentle depiction of young romance.