First published on http://www.intermissionbristol.co.uk circa 2012
Wes Anderson is not exactly mainstream. His films have been criticised for being bland, selfindulgent, and his characters lambasted for their seeming emotional detachment. For those who are unfamiliar with his work, the key characteristic of his films is a highly controlled and self-aware understatement, played off against ever so slightly surreal or absurd people and situations which are nonetheless given all the imaginative and emotional investment of any big-name Hollywood drama.
He also returns, over and over, to the same actors: Bill Murray, Edward Norton and Jason Schwartzman, for instance, are all Wes Anderson affiliates, having each starred in several of his previous films, and they all appear as main characters in Moonrise Kingdom. And his films’ various setups, or his choice of story, are never conventional: they include the exploits of a marine biologist (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou), a family of prodigies (The Royal Tenenbaums), a pilgrimage by train across India (The Darjeeling Limited) and plasticine woodland animals (Fantastic Mr. Fox). So, he’s not really the typical American director. No, Wes owes his inheritance more to the French New Wave than to Hollywood. Which is not something to be afraid of. Honest. Nonetheless, his work is not easily accessible, and understandably draws criticism for being indulgent, or repetitive. Even confirmed Wes Anderson fans can be thrown off balance by some of his films, which all share a similar filmic style but vary in quality and tone. The latest film of this highly idiosyncratic director, then, could really go either way. Thankfully though, it’s a surprisingly compelling film.
It’s difficult whilst watching Moonrise Kingdom not to wonder whether Anderson mightn’t have learned a thing or two from Fantastic Mr. Fox: the afore-mentioned film was adapted from a short story by equally unconventional children’s author, Roald Dahl, and constitutes Anderson’s first ever foray into the realm of animated cinema. It was, by most accounts, a roaring success, which, rather than exploitatively harvesting a popular children’s story and rendering it into mass consumerist goo, grafted Anderson’s own filmic predilections onto Dahl’s absurdist fairy-tale, extrapolating a truly fantastic piece of cinema from the source material and turned a children’s story into a joyous tale for anyone of any age, in the process.
Moonrise Kingdom does not concern the exploits of an anthropomorphic fox, but it does pick up on some of the child-like innocence of Fantastic Mr. Fox and runs with them all the way to the end of the film: in terms of plot, it concerns one Sam Shakusky, a young Khaki Scout and outsider figure, and his elopement with similarly outcast Suzy Bishop. This, in effect, is all that anyone needs to know of the plot, as it could be said that very little in fact happens. Yet the film is subtly compelling throughout, not because of energetic drama or thrilling plot, but because Anderson is not afraid to give his characters the breathing space to just ‘be’. Simply observing the exploits of these precocious kids (the lead character, twelve years old, smokes a pipe) who behave with child-like innocence, despite dealing with rather un-childlike issues including love, marriage and social rejection, is intriguingly compelling.
This is in no way a ‘dark’ film though: it is slightly surreal, highly choreographed and anti-realistic in style, yet never so over the top as to make one reject the premise, but more importantly, Anderson’s latest film is, as ever, light hearted and at its core, very funny. It presents a world not of emotional detachment, but of emotional understatement, which gives the weight of the audience’s perspective to the children, and the innocence and earnestness with which they behave is so wryly endearing that it makes for an incredibly fun and subtle comedy. In fact, the film is almost cartoon like in its barefaced lack of reaction to the slightly absurd world around it, which is in itself sympathetic with the child-like disposition of being ‘different’; and that’s very much what Moonrise Kingdom is about, being different, and seeing the world from another perspective. As such, Moonrise could very well attract comparisons to Richard Ayoade’s Submarine: both concern a young male protagonist going through adolescence who is somewhat of an outsider, and a depressive. This is hardly an insult of course, as Ayoade’s first ever feature film was highly, and rightly, praised. But Anderson very much has his own individual style, and carves out a very much Anderson-inflected vision of self-contained sixties Americana, set on the fictional and solipsistic island of New Penzance, with a self-awareness of the film’s own artificiality: hence the reason for the character who acts more like a narrator, yet nonetheless interacts with the other characters. But it doesn’t indulge in itself: indeed that’s what marks out Moonrise as one of Anderson’s better films.
The two lead actors, Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, newcomers to the screen, carry out that adult spirit and child-like earnestness with admirable poise. Their unfolding romance is played out with all the dead-pan awkwardness of performers of a much greater age, against the backdrop of Anderson’s characteristic retro/hand-crafted aesthetic and unflinching background drama, and both the intelligence of the performances and of Anderson’s direction shines through in their very funny romance scenes. Performances from Wes Anderson regulars and big name actors including Bruce Willis are out in force, and each fulfils their role with great subtlety, but this is not a film of overly dramatic performance; instead, we have the restrained Willis as an island police officer, Bill Murray as a downtrodden and officious lawyer, and the terrifyingly Victorian ‘Social Services’, a character without a name, played by Tilda Swinton.
It’s difficult to say with Anderson whether he’s a one hit wonder, repeating the same notes over and over again; Moonrise Kingdom is no radical new direction, and it’s unlikely to win over any confirmed detractors of his work, but it’s a return to his best movies, before The Darjeeling Limited, and a lesson learned from Fantastic Mr. Fox. Perhaps then it’s the maturation of his films, both a deftly handled film in the same vein as his previous films, and a turn away from self-indulgence; anyone who’s unafraid of trying out some vaguely indie cinema or who’s sick of blockbuster Hollywood should give it a try. You might quite like it.
★★★★ Josh Adcock