Moonrise Kingdom opens on a picture of a red house hanging in a hallway. Thunder can be distantly heard as the camera glides down the corridor, moving sideways from the left to the right of the frame, from a nearly omniscient, comic-strip-panel perspective that’s classically associated with director Wes Anderson’s “dollhouse” aesthetic. Soon we see a child with a record player, who puts on Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic’s version of “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, Op. 34: Themes A-F.” This number includes recitations detailing how the composer, Benjamin Britten, wrote a piece that highlights how the various instruments of a symphony are interlocking, arriving at a coherent whole. As we hear this spoken verse, Anderson shows us the rest of the family of this house through a series of whip pans and sophisticated dolly shots down other hallways on different floors. Most of these mini-sequences, individual, interlocking parts in a larger prologue, conclude with a girl, Suzy (Kara Hayward), looking out a window with binoculars. Other details emerge: her brothers eating and playing; her father, Walt (Bill Murray), reading or sipping a glass of wine; her mother, Laura (Frances McDormand), filing her fingernails or washing her hair in the kitchen sink. The recording offers a meta-counterpoint to the visual component of this montage, as this family is understood to be but part of a larger production that’s just beginning.
This self-aware texture infuses the film with a tension that never dissipates, that’s purposefully exacerbated by Andrew Weisblum’s precise, unsentimental editing, which mirrors the characters’ studied mater-of-fact-ness in the face of emotional turmoil. During even the film’s most poignant moments, of which there are many, Anderson and Weisblum alternate between shots of the characters with a rhythm indicating that no interaction will be accorded any special melodramatic emphasis. When Suzy meets her boyfriend, Sam (Jared Gilman), in a vast, movingly autumnal cornfield, their faces are studiously un-lingered upon in a bold stroke that fleetingly and ironically reflects their own vulnerability and defensiveness. The impression of this scene is superficially one of “Well, here we are,” but we’re allowed to sense the feelings that are really at stake, churning within the protagonists. Anderson has no time to dawdle, so the characters must reveal themselves to us on the fly while in the process of attempting to live their lives, usually through the projects they assign themselves. (Sam’s camping expertise is contrasted with his newness to the game of courtship, for instance, often to perceptive, quick-witted effect.) This resonant editing serves a purpose that’s simply described, ineffably achieved, conveying the discord of young romance, in which every moment simultaneously appears to be fleeting and everlasting.
What Anderson has mastered, what now renders his films so exceptionally heart-wrenching, is an ability to convey the power of the unsaid. The bloated speechifying of The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is no longer a part of his aesthetic. The filmmaker first tinkered with this new implicative leanness in The Darjeeling Limited, then perfected it in Fantastic Mr. Fox, leading to Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel, two meticulously sculptural fables of honor and empathy. The prologue that opens Moonrise Kingdom doesn’t only represent Anderson’s flexing of his formal muscles; it establishes an entire family’s rhythms, without any dialogue, in a handful of minutes.
Intuitively, we know that Suzy exists apart from the rest of her house, that’s she troubled, intelligent, talented, and that her parents have no idea what to do with her because they’re similarly predisposed, sharing her attitude toward the rut of the family’s domestic arrangement. It’s no mystery why Sam would appeal to Suzy, and vice versa, as they’re both wounded dreamers, living in a tucked-away island community of eccentrics similarly seeking refuge. The storm that figures into the film’s climax isn’t just an homage to the adventure stories that Suzy reads or that Anderson’s generally riffing on: It’s a symbol of emotional chaos flooding in, forcing these characters to halt their frantic obsessions with minute processes and bric-a-brac and internally account for themselves. It’s not incidental, then, that the editing has subtly slowed down by this point, growing more plaintive and searching, beginning at the point when Suzy and Sam reach a beloved island nook near the middle of the film, which they christen the Moonrise Kingdom. Tellingly, we never hear the name spoken, like most emotional realms, however physicalized, it surpasses verbal description.
Moonrise Kingdom isn’t only about children who experience adult pangs of longing, love, and belonging for the first time. It’s predominantly concerned with how Suzy and Sam’s running away quietly highlights the entire community’s own irresolute yearning. In true Anderson fashion, the film’s about people who gradually come to realize that they’re all in the same boat: lost, lonely, hating themselves. A moment between Sam and Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) in the latter’s trailer particularly emphasizes these currents. Sharp tells Sam that he’s almost certainly more intelligent than himself, pouring the child a few sips of his beer. There’s so much in this brief scene: Sharp’s decency and empathy, his sadness and unrecognized intelligence, not to mention Sam’s gratitude for being accorded dignity rather than being read the sort of riot act that his Scout Master (Edward Norton) might read him, even though this latter action is also understood to be a gesture of inelegantly directed love. That’s what Moonrise Kingdom abundantly offers: nesting love stories that chafe against one another, sparking inadvertent resentment, disillusionment, and, occasionally, the sort of unions and reunions that allow one to believe that anything’s possible.
Criterion has transferred another Wes Anderson film to home video with characteristic aplomb. The trick is in honoring the deliberately well-worn, handmade qualities of the images while somehow ensuring that they remain unwaveringly pristine, which is especially important given Anderson’s penchant for compositions in which the foreground and the deep background are often simultaneously in focus. Elegantly inelegant effects, such as subtly jerky computer-generated signs or flying objects that often punctuate the frame, maintain a deliberately awkward je ne sais quoi. The landscapes are surreally hyper-clear, yet there’s also a bit of beautiful, visible grain from the use of 16mm cameras. The colors exude an appropriately nostalgic, autumnal warmth, and facial textures are rendered with a specificity that serves as a form of quotidian contrast against the fantastical storybook atmosphere. The soundtrack’s dense even for a Wes Anderson production, weaving various period-specific institutional marching stanzas, the music of Benjamin Britten, Alexandre Desplat’s escalating, operatic score, and the intricately layered diegetic effects all expertly together. Every sound on this disc registers with bell clarity on minutely differentiated planes (as appropriate), creating a beautiful tapestry of sound.
The audio commentary is hosted by Criterion’s Peter Becker, who teams up with child actor Jake Ryan (Lionel in Moonrise Kingdom) to interview Wes Anderson. Jake also calls Edward Norton, Roman Coppola, Bill Murray, and Jason Schwartzman over the course of the commentary with little preparation or fanfare, occasionally leading to amusing social awkwardness. (Before he understands the situation, Norton sounds particularly unenthused.) Like the other supplements included on this disc, this commentary exudes an irreverent air of screwing around, but astute, telling details frequently emerge. Norton discusses his first reading of the script, initially taking it in as a delightful, whimsical thing until getting to the scene where Suzy’s mother is lying next to Suzy’s father, the former saying that they’re all the children got. Suzy’s father matter-of-factly replies: "That’s not enough." (The final version of this scene is one of the film’s best.) Norton says this scene changed his interpretation of the script, alerting him to its melancholic undertow. Murray offers a variety of anecdotes pertaining to his methods of working with Anderson and the other actors, which are visually complemented by the making-of documentary as well as Norton’s home movies. These features emphasize the physical labor of making a film, as well as the element of controlled chaos that governs such a work environment. This package is rounded out by animatics and miniatures tests, assorted tongue-in-cheek promotional segments, audition footage, the trailer, and essays by Geoffrey O’Brien and an assortment of young writers. There’s also a map of the film’s island setting and a souvenir postcard.
Criterion offers yet another gorgeous restoration of a Wes Anderson film, one of his best in this case, stalwartly continuing to ensure that one of America’s finest directors is properly recognized for the master artist that he’s become.