I haven’t seen Brave or Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer yet, although I intend to watch and cover both this week. Really, the only summer blockbuster I’ve gotten around to is Prometheus and I’ve already discussed that film’s many issues (as has Film Critic Hulk – check out his killer article on the subject, which delves deeper than I ever could into film philosophy, screenplay mechanics, and the history behind not only Prometheus’s production but other productions its filmmakers, particularly screenwriter Damon Lindelof, have worked on). In that regard I guess I’ve been a bad film critic.
But I have seen a movie which has flown under many people’s radars, at a time when the multi-million comic adaptations and CGI family fare are starting to roll out, and that’s unfortunate: the director’s previous work is not particularly obscure, nor does this film lack mainstream appeal. It features a dream cast of big-name stars (Bill Murray, Bruce Willis, Edward Norton) and independent powerhouses (Tilda Swinton, Harvey Keitel, Frances McDormand), a visual and narrative aesthetic aimed at families with the inclusive rating (PG-13) to boot, and audiences love it as much as the critics.
This week I saw Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, and you should too.
Why you should see Moonrise Kingdom
* It’s the realization of everything Wes Anderson has worked towards since he took Rushmore’s faint, Dahlesque touches and built a whole story with them in The Royal Tenenbaums. Critics decry the Wes Anderson look as “forced,” “aloof,” a “distraction” from the emotions and characters important to storytelling. Certainly Anderson has sometimes struggled (See: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou) to keep his stylistic obsessions – the lush colors, the European rock-pop soundtrack and artificial mise en scene – from smothering his already cagey, quietly mournful characters, but there’s no struggle in Moonrise Kingdom. From the first shot we see an auteur in control of his craft. The result is visually stunning: the colors are captivating, the cinematography crisp and masterful, the children’s book artifice delightful. Anderson’s aesthetics are, as usual, unparalleled, but here he delivers a visual experience that also strikes on an emotional level: the characters, lines, and their movement within the meticulously placed shot seamlessly blend together and resonate with me. I have never felt more happy in a movie theatre. I was giddy in the first five minutes; my stomach lit up and buzzed with the feeling of seeing something magical. Part of it is that we finally have a timeless story, Romeo and Juliet and Peter Pan with all the urgency of the former and the youthful optimism of the latter. The characters are still dysfunctional, the children unstable and precocious, but the film does not obsess over this sadness: it paints a more tender picture of humanity, of people who see solutions to their misery and pursue them. Some of them succeed, others fail at first but find happiness in other corners. Moonrise Kingdom’s hopefulness finds expression in Anderson’s ease with using the camera as a paintbrush and crafting some of the most powerful images in cinema. He’s joined the limited ranks of the Coen Brothers, Chomet, and Cuaron, filmmakers who’ve cracked my cool critic exterior with the power of their ending images. Beauty may be subjective — but Wes Anderson’s close to making it universal.
** Let’s not overstate Wes Anderson’s role. For all his trademarks and signatures, despite writing the script and overseeing all parts of its execution, what makes Anderson a solid director is his eye for actors and their subsequent work. You can thank him for kickstarting Jason Schwartzman and Owen Wilson’s careers and continually highlighting Bill Murray’s dramatic chops – but mostly thank those actors and their heavy-lifting. In Moonrise Kingdom, he nets a cast mainstream films would salivate over: Bruce Willis sharing the screen with Bill Murray, Edward Norton, and Frances McDormand? And nobody grandstands? Anderson’s adult cast is diverse and culled from all ends of the film spectrum – action, comedy, drama – but each dives wholly into the material. After the initial and inevitable “Holy shit, that’s Bruce Willis!” moment, he becomes his character, the slow but dutiful, desperate but moral Police Captain Sharp, and never flips back back. Norton likewise is the plucky Scout Master Ward, Batman‘s Robin if Robin tried to lead a group of rascal-children; Frances McDormand is Laura Bishop, the half-bulldog, half-saint mother who calls her daughter to dinner with a megaphone, then washes her hair and coos in her ear when she’s run off to the wilderness, and Bill Murray is her husband Walt, sulky and off in his world – but sulky with good reason – unlike Steve Zissou – caught in a whirlwind of marital strife and failed fatherhood. He’s played similar roles before, with Wes in Rushmore and Sofia Coppola in Lost and Translation, but there’s no mistaking Walt for Herman Blume or Bob Harris. Star acting doesn’t get better than in Moonrise Kingdom, and joined on the peripherals by the best of the character acts – Tilda Swinton at her most terrifying, Harvey Keitel at his most stern, with short, show-stealing turns from Bob Balaban and Jason Schwartzman – this ensemble soars as one.
An ensemble, incidentally, not just limited to the over-twenties…
*** Once you see Moonrise Kingdom, you’ll know: nobody else could have played Sam Shakusky or Suzy Bishop. We’ve been blessed with a slew of young talents of late, but Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward have nothing to worry about: they’re the heart of the movie, and without them Moonrise Kingdom would be an empty shell. As much as the adults, Gilman and Hayward are absorbed into their characters, encompassing their respective chipmunk-faced intensity and gentle grace, tempered in both cases with a fierce, near territorial protectiveness of what makes them happy – each other. The film’s best moments belong to them, including a scene where Anderson abandons his usual flairs and lets the camera hold still, watching the kids dance on the beach – it’s sweet, hilarious, and true, all because we see in that moment beyond the fiction into the human. These are kids being kids, even when they’re imitating (very) adult behavior. The rest of the child cast is incredible, easily the best crew of pre-fifteens in any film I’ve seen. Those looking to get in touch with their inner child have a fine template in Moonrise Kingdom.
**** It’s Wes Anderson’s funniest live-action film, as light, playful, and plain fun as Fantastic Mr. Fox translated into flesh-and-bone. This might surprise some, especially since true to Anderson’s style it includes plenty of darker, mature subjects – and yet it never sinks to dark comedy, tragicomedy, or any of the genre fusions. Optimism remains the name of the game throughout. That Anderson can accomplish this after some of the things he does – one scene (you’ll know which one) drew horrified gasps from the audience followed, seconds later, by the loudest laugh. We’re always reminded of how creepy the premise is – the children are always one step away from Lord of the Flies – but we never care. The joy is too infectious, and Anderson’s grasp of the material too tight, to dip into despair.
***** The soundtrack seals the deal. Sure, it’s cute to hear Wes Anderson’s taste in music, especially when it works (“Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” in The Royal Tenenbaums, The Darjeeling Limited‘s credits music), but it’s always been the most extraneous, undeniably intrusive element of his style. It’s the one part where Anderson injects his personality without considering the needs of the story first. If Moonrise Kingdom is any indication, Wes Anderson has found a solution: pick a single artist thematically relevant to the narrative and prioritize them throughout. Here he picks Benjamin Britten, and the new, strong focus pays dividends. Britten’s compositions straddle the line between child and adult, solemn and whimsical, capturing the spirit of the film and engraving its best scenes deeper into memory. Hear for yourself, and also check out the contributions by Alexander Desplat, the composer who worked on Fantastic Mr. Fox and brings that film’s precocious charm to Moonrise Kingdom. Then watch the film and see how a smartly arranged, smartly compiled soundtrack can push a great film the extra mile and make it a classic.
Whatever your reasons for seeing Moonrise Kingdom, it deserves to be experienced and celebrated along with mainstream smash hits, be it Avengers, Brave, or the upcoming Dark Knight Rises. Find the closest theatre showing Moonrise Kingdom and make a night of it with friends. You shan’t regret it.