Wes Anderson is back in the live action business and Moonrise Kingdom fits like a perfect piece in the big picture puzzle of Anderson’s career. Anderson is not so much an acquired taste as he is love at first bite, or spit it out and move on to something else. He’s a movie lover’s director. I don’t know anyone who is really, really into films who doesn’t at least like, if not love, Anderson’s work. And the true measure of Anderson’s talents as a director is that he’s one of the few directors that you would never really compare a work of to another director’s. You can mostly only compare Wes Anderson movies to other Wes Anderson movies and, to me, that is the mark of a true auteur. There’s an old line about professional wrestling that for those who don’t get it, no explanation is good enough; and for those that do get it, no explanation is necessary. I don’t think any line could more aptly describe Anderson fans’ feeling toward his movies. And, yes, I did just compare Wes Anderson movies to professional wrestling.
On the one hand, there’s not really anything surprising about Anderson’s latest, and the point with Anderson is that’s a good thing. His movies are all about nostalgia and whimsy, with a touch of melancholia. All the elements are there in Moonrise Kingdom, as two star crossed, pre- teen lovers lead the boy’s scout troop, the girl’s family, and a beautifully played out of character Bruce Willis on a chase across an island and water as they themselves chase love. The core performances of the lovers, played by Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward are touching and focused, and allow the whirlwind of the story to spin around their centered core. Anderson films have often been described as having an almost doll house feel to them, and having a love story centered around two young people the way he does here feels like the perfect palette for Anderson to paint around.
Mostly, the painting is brilliant. In particular, Anderson’s use of classical music and (made up) pre-teen reading lists as the two lovebirds try to escape together lays on the nostalgia. Nobody with a heart will be able to resist thinking back to their own first case of puppy love, and maybe the record you gave to him or her or the books you wanted to read together. And I can’t say enough for the respect Anderson gave to his vision of first love. There were the typical Anderson hijinks surrounding the core of the story, but as always Anderson is not satirizing or mocking anything. He’s telling a fantastical story that hits the audience in a very, very real place. You will rarely root as hard for a happy ending as you do in this film.
One of the side effects of focusing the story so much on the young couple is that the only real fault I could find in the film is that there was a tiny bit too little for some of the adult cast to do. Bill Murray and Frances McDormand were perfectly droll and detached as the girl’s parents, but I would have enjoyed seeing more of them. Not so much, strangely, with Ed Norton’s scout master. Norton would seemingly be a perfect addition to the Anderson ensemble, and while he was fine and certainly didn’t detract from the story, he didn’t quite fit the Anderson mold somehow. He played it just a tiny bit too straight. Tilda Swinton as a character literally named Social Services clearly had a blast, and I can’t completely decide whether her scenery chewing was a blast or a little bit too much.
On the other end of the spectrum is Bruce Willis. Bruce Willis in a Wes Anderson film is not going to be one of the first casting choices you think of. Understated and controlled, not necessarily what you think of with Willis. But here Willis, right alongside the performances of the two kids, is the absolute best part, and in many ways the heart, of the movie as the lonely and searching police presence on the island where the story takes place. There are a lot of caricatures in Anderson movies, and they are always there for a reason. But Willis’ character is a living, breathing human adult who helps the kids find each other, and their way home.
If you’re a Wes Anderson fan, there will be very little to complain about with Moonrise Kingdom. My wife went as far as to say it deserved to be part of a trilogy, right alongside Rushmore and Royal Tenenbaums, of the best of Wes Anderson. I can’t go quite that far. I think there were little sections of the story that were a touch underdeveloped, and Anderson gave us too little of Murray and McDormand and too much of Norton. But this was a very, very good Wes Anderson flick. There is a long, long way to go this year in movies, and there is an awful lot to look forward to. But of the first half of the year, this is certainly one of the best, and if I were you, I might even stick Bruce Willis in your back pocket for some best supporting love come awards time next year.