The new Wes Anderson movie is certainly a richer pastiche than anything else you’ll see at the multiplex this season. And in its Andersonian manner, Moonrise Kingdom is a nourishing regressive pleasure, a sort of summer movie for grown-ups. Yes, the manner is mannered, but the intention is noble: to affirm the dignity of escapism by direct example.
And so we find the New England island town of “New Penzance” sent into mild upheaval when a serious and sensitive Boy Scout (Jared Gilman) runs away with the headstrong misfit girl he decides he loves (Kara Hayward). This being a Wes Anderson movie, the kids are precocious: souls old enough to seem wise beyond their years or at least beyond the callowness imposed on them by limited life experience. Their elopement is a matter of mutual acceptance and a common want of freedom—hers from a house called Summer’s End, where her parents and younger brothers live in the resigned harmony of torpid estrangement; his from the clockwork conformity of the scouts, later drolly characterized as a bunch of “beige lunatics.”
It feels good and righteous to root for these two, like reclaiming those pre-adult prerogatives once regrettably ceded to the pose of maturity. Wasn’t summer once supposed to be about the pure liberty of endless possibilities? Anderson still knows better than anybody how to survey the cusp of adolescence with all the existential angst of a midlife crisis, and, for relief’s sake, to salt his findings with droll irony. If there’s a basic problem here, it’s the same basic problem as in all of the director’s six previous features—namely, that his particular piquancy is not to every taste.
Co-written by Anderson and Roman Coppola, and set in the 1960s, Moonrise Kingdom accommodates not just retro flourishes of Euro-mod chic, but also the emotional aura of some wistfully remembered Charlie Brown holiday special. Habitually, Anderson revels in bric-a-brac production design, eloquent riffs on stagings from his earlier films, and a tendency, abetted by regular cinematographer Robert Yeoman, to arrange his stars—Bob Balaban, Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Edward Norton, Jason Schwarztman, Tilda Swinton, Bruce Willis—in handsome tableaux. It’s all very Instagram-as-movie, this transparently contemporary simulation of a bygone era, viewed through flaxen-tinted filtration and built for frictionless dissemination. Well, this is where we’re at now, and, to a large extent, Anderson is the guy who got us here.
At times, even his props seem to be posturing. Gosh, what a beautiful sans-serif typeface the Island Police use on their car doors; might that be the same Futura Bold routinely favored by Anderson for his screen titles and credits? And gosh, just imagine all the wondrous young-adult adventures suggested by those library books stashed in the girl’s suitcase. (Or at least do look online for supplemental animations thereof.) Meanwhile, the filmmaker’s typically tasteful musical affinities lean here toward English composers especially; sometimes it seems like instead of a full film narrative, he should’ve just tried a music video for the entirety of Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols. Which, of course, would be fantastic.
But the movie’s characters—in particular its refreshingly unactorly protagonists, so poignantly and palpably unformed, and so nicely set off against all that art direction—seem quite helpfully peoplelike. All the grown-ups are in some way hapless, and therefore implicitly obliging to the youngsters’ enterprise. With heart-swelling sympathy and sincerity, Norton, as the scoutmaster, redeems potential caricature, and Willis stands out as the cop, a melancholy and reflective figure of earned adult authority. “It takes time to figure things out,” he advises the boy, tenderly.
That might also be Anderson talking to himself. Moonrise Kingdom has a welcome new allowance of naturalness, particularly in landscape and weather. (Fittingly, the action takes place during the run-up to a storied New Penzance hurricane.) It is another of Anderson’s dollhouses, unavoidably, but with its windows open and without any shortage of fresh air in circulation. Except maybe for coherence, the film doesn’t strain, and if Anderson now lacks the will to innovate, he has traded it for the real benefit of relaxing into vision refinement. Now we know for sure that he makes movies, even summer movies, the way he must.