Moonrise Kingdom’s opening sequences are a virtual catalogue of Wes Anderson’s signature fetishes, and they sound awful on paper: precocious kids, eye-bleeding color schemes, “impossible” tracking shots, quirk-saturated environments. But while the mustard yellow-and-brown hues and the offbeat setting (an isolated New England island in which a Boy Scouts knock-off appears to be among the dominant institutions) seem designed to highlight the less felicitous aspects of Anderson’s art, it doesn’t take the director long to show why his films can never be reduced to the superficial elements which are all his many imitators seem capable of grasping.
For one thing, Anderson’s best films are always infused with a palpable sadness, his characters beset by a desperate longing to connect with other human beings, to escape their often oppressive family situations, and, in the case of his youthful protagonists, to gain prematurely the self-determination that comes with adulthood. Moonrise Kingdom focuses on a pair of such characters, 12-year-old Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman), unwanted orphan and disgruntled Khaki Scout, who leaves his troop to join young Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward), herself unhappy with her home situation. While the pair meet up, fall in love while retracing the Native American settlement of the island and eventually get (unofficially) married, they’re pursued by a whole host of searchers, including the gung-ho Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton) and his charges, Suzy’s attorney parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), the local police captain (Bruce Willis), and the stern government representative known only as Social Services (Tilda Swinton).
While youthful romance is notoriously difficult to portray on screen, Anderson pulls off something like a miracle in his treatment of Sam and Suzy’s burgeoning love. While he avoids obvious gushiness by giving them each their own quirks (which seem like an appropriate straining after an alternate world by a pair trying to carve out their own existence), he also takes care to undercut these affectations by showing the ways in which reality often makes mockery of fantasy. In one heartbreaking sequence, Suzy tells Sam how romantic the idea of being an orphan strikes her as being (an attitude that results from her reading of adventure novels), to which the boy replies, “I love you, but you don’t know what you’re talking about.” Abashed, Suzy can only muster the response, “I love you too.” Tough and tender collide in a scene where cutesiness is undercut and sentimentality is sharply excised.
Eventually, coupledom gives way to community and Anderson’s generous vision expands to include Sam’s fellow Khaki Scouts who, rethinking their former antipathy to their troop-mate, join Sam and Suzy and help them elude the authorities that would split them up and send Sam to some unimaginable institution for orphans. Although Moonrise Kingdom remains continually fanciful (much of the couple-and-accompanying-troop-on-the-run stuff deliberately evokes boys’ adventure books, particularly given the Native American paraphernalia worn by the scouts and which was common among such institutions in the film’s 1960s setting), it always reminds us of the stakes in which precocious childhood rubs up against the possibility of a childhood denied altogether.
It all comes together spectacularly during an expertly executed storm sequence in which the island is beset by a hurricane. Anderson’s showiest set piece to date manages to bring the expected visual splendor (with the bonus of spatial coherence) while giving each character his or her due, the director navigating the proceedings to a satisfying resolution in which, amid the chaos of the storm, a sort of new order is restored. As the final scene makes clear, it’s not a perfect order (the twin oppressors of childhood and family remain in place), but it’s a workable one. In his understanding of both the pleasures and limits of fancy, Anderson generously leaves his characters with room to live, even if they will still have to struggle with the inevitable stresses and frustrations that come with being human.