The year is 1965. On the idyllic New England island of New Penzance, Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton) is alarmed to discover twelve year old orphan Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) has fled Camp Ivanhoe together with his friend young Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward). Police Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) shares the news with Suzy’s parents, Walt (Bill Murray) and Laura Bishop (Frances McDormand) as it becomes apparent the troubled youngsters carefully planned their escape. Sharing adventures together amidst their idyllic retreat, Suzy and Sam fall deeper in love. Meanwhile, Captain Sharp and Scout Master Ward mobilize the scout troop into a search party as a dangerous storm threatens the island.
Wes Anderson made one of cinema’s most inspired and original comedies in Rushmore (1998) though the arch style and near-obsessive love of minutiae that characterise his output rub some people up the wrong way. His knack for crafting vividly eccentric characters and oddball worlds infused with wry humour transcends occasionally aimless plots yet often a tendency to scrutinise these in clinical fashion has led some to claim his work lacks soul. Not so Moonrise Kingdom, which ranks close to a masterpiece as clearly Anderson’s most heartfelt and affecting work. His trademark storybook style of direction befits a tale told through a child’s eyes but it is the clever use of Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, complimenting Alexandre Desplat’s delicate score, that unlocks the film’s intent.
Just as Britten deconstructed the orchestra for his young listeners, so too does Anderson utilize the misadventures of his child heroes as a means of deconstructing the community. Sam and Suzy’s escapades unearth an array of revelations and secret sadness among the grownups who all appear much as a child would perceive them, with their most neurotic traits magnified. It is a conceit possibly lifted from Federico Fellini’s approach in Amarcord (1974). However, rather than reduce them to caricatures, the film’s approach is distinctly humane, illustrating how their flaws and foibles are all part of being human. Anderson presents them as dysfunctional people but shows that they can come together as a functioning community. In this endeavour he is greatly aided by an outstanding ensemble cast, particularly the perfectly pitched performances delivered by Bruce Willis and Edward Norton. In the hands of these two gifted actors, Captain Sharp and Scout Master Ward emerge as two tragically lonely yet inherently lovable sad-sacks whose reaction to the adolescent lovers is one of gentle befuddlement and causes them to reassess their own lives. Regular Anderson collaborator Jason Schwartzman pops up in fine form while their are further delightful turns from the likes of Harvey Keitel, Tilda Swinton and Bob Balaban as our charmingly pompous onscreen narrator.
In lesser hands the mathematically precise coordination of retro-Sixties production design, methodical cinematography by regular D.P. Robert Yeoman and finely tuned soundtrack could have reduced the film to an elaborate dolls’ house, but Anderson wisely centred this film around two spirited young leads. Newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward complement the usual deadpan humour with kind of sincerity lacking in Anderson’s earlier post-Rushmore work. The film is refreshingly candid about pre-adolescent sexuality without straying into prurience but at its heart focuses upon two troubled children who find refuge in love and fantasy and in doing so inspire grownups and peers alike to draw something better from themselves. With its gently satirical wit and warm humanity the film sometimes recalls Charles Schultz’s Peanuts comic strip. It even features a dog called Snoopy, albeit one that comes to a comically sticky end yet subtly underlines a preoccupation with death and rebirth.