Wes Anderson is a sort of personal cinematic litmus test of mine. If you like, or can at least appreciate, aspects of the Anderson oeuvre, then we have some common ground in which to discuss films. On the other hand, if you are one of the many humorless Anderson detractors who finds nothing more than self-aware indie quirkiness in his work, then I’m likely to have serious qualms with any of your opinions on any films whatsoever (and to some extent, any of your opinions on life in general).
If my words strike you as a bit hyperbolic, I apologize, but Anderson’s critics are a particularly sensitive bugaboo for me. Why work as seemingly inoffensive and lighthearted as Anderson’s films tend to be, cause such polarizing effects, is somewhat of a mystery.
For some critics, Anderson takes everything that is wrong with “indie cinema” (its all-too preciousness), and multiplies it by a thousand.
They sense a certain hipster tweeness they feel is disingenuous and bereft of meaning. Usually, at the risk of over-generalizing, these are the critics who prefer much more “real” fare that deals with “real” people and their “real” problems (the Romanian film 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days is a prime example). In other words, they prefer films heavier than the heaviest element on earth.
The other common charge levied against Mr. Anderson’s films is that they are all the same. Many have accused Anderson of becoming a parody of himself, saying that while he may have started out as a fresh voice with a unique style, he has recently been stuck in a rut of repetition, dealing with the same characters and the same issues over and over again, like some idiosyncratic purgatory.
Responding to the first accusation, I simply refute it. While I do acknowledge that the degree to which indie films tend to play the quaint card can be infuriating at times, I have never detected the slightest modicum of insincerity with any of Anderson’s films. Choices critics see as “self-congratulatory cleverness”, I think are simply instances of Anderson having some fun. Whether it is meticulous art direction, use of out-dated or childish mediums (stop-go animation and dioramic sets), or eccentric characters with foibles too sweet to hate, these are not instances of self-aggrandizing, but rather moments of playfulness (something that seems to be lost on all too many filmmakers today).
As to the second complaint of continually repeating the same movie, I say, “Yeah sure, absolutely, but so what”. Almost every single filmmaker, from the beginning of the medium to the current day, has more or less made the same film over and over and over (it’s pretty much the definition of an auteur). The fact that Wes Anderson’s style is more pronounced may make it easier to pick up on the fact the his movies have many similarities, but that doesn’t make the critique a legitimate argument. You can either like his style or not, but unless you are actively calling out people like Alfred Hitchcock for repeating himself too, then please drop the repetition complaint.
Anyway, I only open with this diatribe because: 1). I needed to get it off my chest and, 2). To give you an understanding of the level of expectations I had going into Moonrise Kingdom. Being the Anderson devotee that I am, you can guess I have been eagerly anticipating Moonrise Kingdom for months. The question is then, “Did it live up to my lofty expectations”. The answer… “Sort of”.
The plot of Moonrise Kingdom (which is admittedly heavily borrowed from the 1971 film Melody) revolves around a teenage-ish boy, Sam (Jared Gilam), and a teenage-ish girl, Suzy (Kara Hayward), who decide to runaway together from their 1960’s New England town/island in order to start their own lives, roughing it in the woods. The two young outcasts’ absence quickly becomes the focus of the small island community, as Sam going AWOL from his scout troupe causes Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton) to inform Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) of the boy’s MIA status. Once Suzy’s parents, Walt (Bill Murray) and Laura (Frances McDormand), realize their daughter is missing too, the search party’s efforts are redoubled, as the whole island joins in on the search for the young wayward lovers.
The plot seems a perfect fit for Anderson’s style and writing (which he co-wrote with Roman Coppola), and in a lot of ways it is. Anderson employs familiar creative techniques (that are apparently like nails against a chalkboard to some) that he has become known for, and overall, they work perfectly within the story. The obsessively symmetrical production design, the bold colors of the sets, the cartoon-like silhouettes that appeared in The Fantastic Mr. Fox, the use of dotted-lines to show people traveling about the island, the way the film’s opening title blinks on and off after a lightning strike, and so on and so forth, all work really well.
The problem with the film though (problem being a relative word comparing Moonrise Kingdom to Anderson’s previous films) is the pacing. With all these lovely moments, including some great interaction between the two star-crossed lovers, the film seems overly concerned with crossing these moments off a checklist and then moving on to the next priceless scene. At an incredibly brisk 94 minutes, we simply do not get enough time to know these characters to the extent that we should.
The other issue, that is compounded by the film’s short run time, is there are just too many characters (which is the main issue I have with the only other Anderson film I liked less, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou). The result then is a feeling that the characters are slightly underdeveloped, more like shadows of Anderson’s previous characters. Whether it’s Suzy’s parents, Captain Sharp, or to some extent, even Sam and Suzy, I simply did not feel like I got to know these characters as much as I would like to.
Of course, a film starring two children as runaway lovers depends a lot on the performances of the kids, and for the most part, they succeed. Jared Gilam’s Sam is a boy who definitely follows the beat of his own drummer, but is still able to empathize with others, while Kara Hayward’s Suzy bears a striking resemblance to Gwyneth Paltrow’s Margot Tenebaum, simply in teenage girl form. While both children give good performances, they don’t quite stack up to the most memorable performances given by some of the legendary actors who have starred in Anderson’s previous films.
The star-studded adult ensemble that surround the children do an apt job of supporting their young co-stars, although again, they are limited by their small amount of screen time. Going into Moonrise Kingdom, I was most eager to see how some of the newcomers to Anderson’s films, people like Bruce Willis, Francis McDormand, and Tilda Swinton, would adapt to his style, and they all do a commendable job. The one newcomer who really stood out though, and someone I would love to see work with Anderson in the future, is Edward Norton. Famous for playing extremely intense characters in films like American History X and Fight Club, to see Norton go so against type playing the meek, perfectionist Scout Master Ward, is a hilarious joke within itself, and Norton strikes all the right notes.
Moonrise Kingdom is a good, and extremely well made, movie. For a movie as good as Moonrise Kingdom is, I’m sure this review has come off as overly negative, but if it is, then it is only this way because of my extreme admiration for Wes Anderson’s previous films. It’s not in the top echelon of his filmography, and I do feel it didn’t quite live up to its full potential, but it’s still a great movie (one of the best of the year) that easily deserves your time and money.