Director Wes Anderson is one of the 21st-century’s most distinctive directors. Often described as original and quirky, he produces beautifully crafted and compelling films. From Rushmore (1998) to The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), his work always has a distinctive look. Moonrise Kingdom takes all the elements associated with Anderson and creates a heartwarming children’s fantasy.
When first watching an Anderson film, one is flooded with so much visual artistry, comedic ingenuity, and brilliant characterisation, that it’s difficult to find words to express emotions. The director is transcendent, sentimental, and rooted in fantasy. The first picture I watched by him was The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), which remains favourite. Moonrise Kingdom, however, captures the scope of The Grand Budapest Hotel along with the comedic dialogue of his first animated feature Fantastic Mr Fox (2009).
Set in 1965 on a small island off the coast of New England, a young orphan scout named Sam (Jared Gilman) and a strange, isolated girl named Suzy (Kara Hayward) fall in love after meeting during a performance of Noah and the Flood. Deciding to run away together, their trip across the island causes havoc in the small community. Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton), Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), and Suzy’s parents Walt and Laura Bishop (Bill Murray, Frances McDormand), along with the rest of Khaki Scout troop, all get involved in the search for the two young lovers. As a hurricane draws closer to the island, so do hilarious, disastrous, and delightful consequences.
Having no cinematic experience before Anderson cast them, it was risky anchoring an entire film on newcomers Gilman and Hayward. The director hadn’t made a choice like that since debuting Owen and Luke Wilson in Bottle Rocket (1996), yet both times it’s been a risk that’s paid off. The characters of Sam and Suzy become more and more relatable as events progress. Both youngsters’ natural chemistry is infectious and the movie wouldn’t work without them, as their confident performances capture the naivety and earnestness of puppy love.
Hayward is particularly great, as her lingering gaze is mesmerising. She reminded me of a young Gwyneth Paltrow as Margot Tenenbaum from Anderson’s 2001 masterpiece. Suzy’s pristine in a conservative dress with miraculous hair and makeup, tt behind her eyes she’s an emotional Rubik’s cube. Gilman also does an excellent job portraying Sam, too. Behind his thick spectacles and smoke rising from his corn pipe, he’s an orphan boy who doesn’t have a bad bone in his body. Which is why he becomes an easy target to his fellow scouts and earns their sympathy.
The rest of the ensemble function delightfully together in a deadpan manner. Edward Norton (Fight Club) gives one of the movie’s best performance as quirky Scout Master Ward. Beginning as a whip-cracking authoritarian who runs his scout troops like a drill sergeant runs a platoon, Norton slowly reveals the cracks of becoming less self-assured as he speaks into a tape recorder every night. Surprisingly, Bruce Willis (Twelve Monkeys) is able to step away from his tough-guy persona as Captain Sharp. Although he plays a police officer (no real stretch), it’s refreshing to see Willis as a truly vulnerable character who’s kind and caring.
Bill Murray (The Dead Don’t Die) and Frances McDormand (American Woman) appear as Suzy Bishop’s parents, Walt and Laura, as lawyers who mostly communicate with each other in legal terms. Walt expresses one wish, and that’s for the storm to pull the roof from his house and suck him into space because his family would be better off without him. It’s a fantastic line delivered perfectly by Murray, summing up the pair’s relationship perfectly. Although they’re not really in love, they care a lot for their children. There are also two minor roles for Anderson regulars Jason Schwartzman (Rushmore) and Tilda Swinton (Suspiria) who are a lot of fun, and never steal the spotlight from the two protagonists.
What’s most touching about Moonrise Kingdom is the lack of cynicism from the two leads. The fairytale-like quality of two 12-year-olds desperate to leave their boring lives behind contrasts nicely as the adults slowly come to terms with their own adolescent innocence being lost over time. They do what Captain Sharp and Mr and Mrs Bishop want to do, but don’t have the will power to carry out. Sam and Suzy are representations of their lost hopes and dreams. This is a message that everyone can relate to, initiating empathy for the older characters as well as the protagonists. Although Anderson presents this in his usual over whimsical fashion, the theme anchors the story enough that one truly believes the desperation and disappointment each character feels.
Anderson is an incredibly stylistic filmmaker and he implements many of his usual visual aesthetics within this movie, to blissful effect. His and Robert Yeoman’s (Dogma) beautiful cinematography, along with Adam Stockhausen’s (12 Years a Slave) production design help provide an entirely unique style for the movie. The camera work gives everything an incredibly clean-cut, stylised, almost outer-worldly quality. The central position of the camera creates a surreal symmetry that’s both jarring and pleasing to the eye. An Anderson favourite is the tracking shot that can last for several minutes, displaying the director’s keen eye for detail. In an early scene, a wonderfully captured sequence of the Bishop household gives audiences all the information required to understand this dysfunctional family. Seamlessly drifting from one room to the next, it sets up the characters in a similar way as the introduction of the boat scene in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004).
The director used Super 16mm film to help provide a rustic, 1960s autumnal atmosphere. The forest and seascapes of the mythical New England island are inviting and comforting, tet the costume design by Kasia Walicka Maimom (Ready Player One) is extraordinary. The homemade costume all contain a ’60s pastel palette. From Mr Bishop’s loud plaid trousers, Suzy’s knee-high socks accompanied by a French beret, and the Khaki Scout’s uniform, each with detailed stitched on merit badges. There’s no way one could mistake Moonrise Kingdom as not being an Anderson picture. The golden-yellow texture makes every frame look equally as gorgeous as the director’s previous feature Fantastic Mr Fox. However, the director carries over more than just the vibrant colour palette. He also manages to sneak in some cleverly placed stop-motion, creating a nice contrast between real-world dilemmas and whimsical storytelling.
An early scene at the Khaki Scout Camp, we follow Scout Leader Ward surveying the morning routine, only to cut to a wide shot of the Khaki Scout treehouse over 30-foot in the air, resembling something from Looney Tunes. Further, in a scene reminiscent of Lord of the Flies, Sam and Suzy are confronted by Sam’s fellow Khaki Scouts. There’s a cut to an arrow flying through the air along with a quick edit to a picture of scissors. A different director may have shown the Scouts shooting the arrow, or Suzy stabbing the Scout leader with said scissors. However, Anderson cuts together those separate shots with a stop-motion twist, dodging traditional presentational methods. The staging, composition and movement in each scene are more complicated than necessary, but regardless of that, Anderson packs as much visual information as he can within each frame, along with magnifying the absurdity of the visuals.
Personally, my highlight of Moonrise Kingdom is the storybook aesthetic. It acts as the driving force, pumping energy through the narrative. Not only does each frame look similar to an illustration on aged paper, but parts of the feature are narrated by a character appropriately called Narrator (Bob Balaban). Dressed like a garden gnome, he delivers narrative information straight to the camera in a tone that evokes reading a bedtime story to a child. He also provides vital information about an approaching storm that plays a prominent role in the final act. Today many filmmakers are obsessed with portraying the realistic ugliness of the world on screen, that they forget movies are a form of escapism. Anderson realises this and makes Moonrise Kingdom so evidently fake that it stylistically translates events as if we’re reading Suzy’s copy of “Shelly and the Secret Universe” under a tent with a torch.
The writing is also snappy and appropriately fast-paced. Although it takes time to build the story and develop the characters, it contains the trademark ironic humour Anderson is known for. Co-written with Roman Coppola (The Darjeeling Limited), the script overflows with eccentric characters and minimalistic deadpan humour. One scene that many critics seem noteworthy is the moment Suzy tells Sam she’s envious that his parents are dead. As he replies “I love you, but you don’t know what you’re talking about.” Of course it’s witty, however, personally, the best line is after the Scout’s terrier dies. Suzy asks “was he a good dog?” and Sam responds “who can say?”. Personally, the humour works on the same level as Napoleon Dynamite (2004). It’s what one would expect from an Anderson picture: off-balanced and dry as a bone. The scenes with Sam and Suzy are excellently written that they portray not children, but pint-sized adults.
The overall style of an Anderson film isn’t everybody’s cup of tea and Moonrise Kingdom plays like the director’s Greatest Hits package. Although fans enjoy this quality of his filmmaking, others see it as pretentious. It doesn’t meet the high standards of The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, although thematically it deals with young love like Rushmore. Compared to the fractured family relationship prevalent in The Royal Tenenbaums, it feels emotionally lightweight in comparison. Perhaps that’s because it’s seen through a child’s perspective? Or perhaps I missed something after being distracted with Bruce Willis giving a heartfelt performance. Nonetheless, at just over 90-minutes it’s visually pleasing to the eye and an enjoyable coming of age story.
Director-approved Special Edition Blu-ray Features:
The latest Blu-ray release from Criterion Collection presents Moonrise Kingdom in an aspect ratio of 1:85:1, encoded with MPEG-4 AVC. As stated in the included booklet, “supervised by director Wes Anderson, this new digital transfer was created in 2K resolution from the original camera negative.” Moonrise Kingdom is, as one would expect, absolutely beautiful to look at. The 1080p transfer perfectly conveys the vision of the director. Colours are crisp and clear, while the levels of detail on textures are extremely evident. Suzy’s make-up pops off the screen and each individual stitch on the Scout’s badges can be discerned. The unique colour scheme is beautifully reproduced, too; the rich yellows and browns give the picture a warm appearance, and the distinct colour palette is exquisitely preserved highlighting Anderson’s carefully crafted camera work. A minor worry was several of the nighttime sequences are a little too dark and some minor fluctuations are present. However, I believe this is a stylistic choice due to the original’s 16mm cinematography.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is the only standard audio track on the Blu-ray release. As stated in the included booklet, “the original 5.1 surround soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from the original digital audio master files using Pro Tools HD.” The sound serves the movie very well. Depth and clarity are outstanding and there is a wide range of nuanced dynamics, truly bringing the environment to life. One should not expect an active sound design that would match a large budget action film. However, the movement around the soundstage during the storm sequence works perfectly. Dialogue is crisp and exceptionally easy to follow, which was a concern of mine, as I remember finding it difficult to hear Sam speak clearly n a previous DVD release. Alexandre Desplat’s sound design is almost a character itself in Anderson pictures, and it’s no different here. Watching Sam and Suzy dance on the beach to Françoise Hardy’s “Le Temps De L’amour” fills the soundstage beautifully. A personal gripe was the sound was so pristinely clear, that it took away the crackle from a vinyl player. However, it’s easy to ignore with the lovely orchestral pieces accompanied by Hank Williams’ Lonesome Blues.
- Audio Commentary by director Wes Anderson and Chris Becker, the President of Criterion, moderated by actor Jake Ryan. A guilty pleasure of mine is listening to audio commentaries, and Moonrise Kingdom’s doesn’t disappoint. What makes this commentary stand out from others is that it’s completely bizarre and feels like it was put together at the drop of a hat. Beginning with Anderson meticulously over-explaining the opening shots, it soon evolves into a conversation that doesn’t have any significance to the feature. Anderson and Ryan begin making phone calls to many of the big-name actors, who sound surprised to receive calls mid-commentary. Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, and co-writer Roman Coppola are all on the phone at various points providing insights. It’s an odd way to do a commentary, but it’s also strangely entertaining.
- ‘The Making of Moonrise Kingdom’. Split into four separate features (“Exploring the Set”, “Animatics and Narrator Tests”, “Auditions”, and “Special Effects and Test Footage”), narrated by Anderson’s assistant Martin Scali. Accompanied with subtitles, he explains the production process in each feature speaking French. Hilariously, he admits halfway through that he can, in fact, speak English. In quirky Anderson-esque fashion, the director asked him to do the narration in French and, of course, he obliged. In the Animatics feature, we get a brief insight into the workings of the animatics Anderson put together to storyboard some of the more complicated scenes. Finally, the ‘Special Effects’ feature shows some brief footage of the miniatures that had been created for the picture. Such as the dam breaking during the flash flood.
- ‘Set Tour With Bill Murray’. One really wishes that this feature was longer as I absolutely adore the actor. In a short three-minute featurette, we get a hilarious tour of the set with the legendary actor. Amongst other things, the actor also admits that he’s never seen the director’s first film Bottle Rocket (1996).
- ‘Welcome To New Penzance’. Bob Balaban reprises his role as the narrator and talks briefly about the picture. Offering an insight into the cast and their characters.
- PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien and a selection of commentary from young writers, along with a map of New Penzance Island and other ephemera.
- New cover by Michael Gaskell.
Cast & Crew
director: Wes Anderson.
writers: Wes Anderson & Roman Coppola.
starring: Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Jason Schwartzman & Bob Balaban.