Review: Moonrise Kingdom

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“What kind of bird are you?”asks Sam Shikusky, (Jared Gilman) the shy, disliked Khaki Scout of Troop 55 on New Penzance Island, presumably somewhere along the coast of New England. He has gone wandering during the performance at St. Jack’s church of Benjamin Britten’s opera, Noye’s Fludde, a tale of Noah’s flood. He finds himself in the girls’ dressing room, and a line of girls dressed in avian costumes face the mirror. He has no interest in the owl or the sparrow, but is all eyes for the raven.

She is Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward), and anyone who knows Genesis knows that the raven was the unfortunate bird that was first released by Noah from the ark, but never came back. As Suzy tells Sam that she is a raven, their eyes lock and it is love at first sight. They will write for a year, until the next summer, when she and Sam will run off together.

I don’t think any film director has as instantly recognizable style as Wes Anderson, as he directs Moonrise Kingdom, which he co-wrote with Roman Coppola. To be sure, this film is full of a myriad novelistic details that Anderson is known for, particular those of the kind that are often labeled “precious.” For instance, each member of the Khaki Scouts has a badge over his heart indicating his role in the troop–one is “Reptile Control,” another “Petty Bugler.” Another boy has a patch over his eye and is only known as “Lazy Eye” (funny, if insensitive). A major decision is made while a boy trampolines in the background. Not just scissors are utilized as a weapon, but lefty scissors, with the identifiable red handle. Sam puffs a corncob pipe, and Suzy wears blue eye shadow.

All of this makes for a very funny movie, but there is also an overall sense of loss. The use of music, also an Anderson specialty, is key. Instead of using a variety of pop songs, as he did in Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, he sticks to two themes–Britten (especially a recording he did for young people) and Hank Williams. I was also reminded of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem Annabel Lee, what with its “kingdom by the sea.”

It is 1965. Sam, with his ever present coonskin cap, busts loose from the troop, which is overseen by the diligent Scoutmaster Ward (Edward Norton). The island police is notified, which means Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis). Suzy, with her binoculars, her brother’s record player, a cat, and a suitcase full of books about girl adventurers, slips out of her house, called Summer’s End. Her parents are the somewhat distracted Bill Murray and Frances McDormand, who is seeing Willis on the sly. Suzy found a book called “Coping With Your Troubled Child” on top of the refrigerator. Her brother calls her a traitor to the family, and she responds, “I hope I am.” Soon a full scale search is launched, with the Khaki Scouts using their tracking skills.

Sam and Suzy find an idyll and frolic together, chastely, but there is a few moments where those who might recoil at watching 12-year-olds French kiss in their underwear will feel uncomfortable (Sam even gets to second base). But of course their idyll must end, and Sam, an orphan, has been banished from his foster home and will be turned over to Special Services, represented by Tilda Swinton, dressed head to toe in cerulean.

The film is about innocent love, the kind that only children can feel for each other, but it is also about loss. Most of the characters in this film are lonely–Murray and McDormand sleep in separate beds, Norton has a photo up of his mentor, the great Khaki Scout Master (played in a very funny cameo by Harvey Keitel), but apparently no woman in his life, and Willis lives alone in a trailer. There is something of Romeo and Juliet to the children’s love–it is not exactly doomed, but it will bring people together in common cause.

As with Anderson’s other films, the acting is of a certain style–mostly a kind of flat, declarative kind. No one raises their voice (although Murray, seeing his daughter with Sam lying together in a tent, does charge like a rhino). Statements are made with a philosophical certainty, and children are wise beyond their years. While mourning a dead  dog, Suzy asks Sam if he was a good dog. “Who’s to say?” he asks. When asked what his real job is, Norton says he is a math teacher, and then corrects that, to say he is a scoutmaster first and a math teacher on the side. Murray finds some paintings Sam sent Suzy. McDormand tells him that “he does mostly watercolors, some nudes.”

The film includes some nods to other films, ranging from Titanic to Buster Keaton’s Cops. There is a kind of hyper-realism present, so that when a character, during a thunderstorm, runs across a place called Lightning Field, we can be pretty sure what happens (right after that character quotes Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce).

Despite those quotes, Anderson remains an amazingly original director. Even though his style is immediately recognizable, he is not stealing from himself. Certainly Sam and Suzy are kindred spirits with Max Fleischman of Rushmore, or the Whitman brothers of The Darjeeling Limited. Royal Tenenbaum would love a son like Sam. They all march to the beat of their own drummers.

My grade for Moonrise Kingdom: A.

About Jackrabbit Slim

Location: Vegas, Baby! I’m much older than the other whippersnappers here, a baby boomer. I tend to be more snobbish about film, disdaining a lot of the multiplex fare for “cinema.” My favorite films: Woody Allen’s oeuvre (up until about 1990), The Godfather, The Graduate, A Hard Day’s Night, Pulp Fiction. Politics: Well, George McGovern was my political hero. I’m also a prickly atheist. Occupation: Poised to be an English teacher in Las Vegas. For many years I was an editor at Penthouse Magazine. My role on this blog seems to be writing lots of reviews and being the resident Oscar maven.

7 responses »

  1. Well, it’s just brilliant. I’ve always been a Wes Anderson fan, but this is a masterpiece and his best film to date.

    I think Manohla Dargis’s review comes pretty close to describing my thoughts on the film, especially regarding Anderson’s superb technical command and the genius of the film’s structure, although there’s still something about what she writes that falls short, and it’s hard for me to get my head around what that is.

    But I think it’s probably something in her tone that is condescending to the kids, though, a sort of “oh look at them doing cute kids’ stuff” that the movie doesn’t have. There’s nothing about the movie that puts the kids on a lower pedestal than the adults, or suggests that what they’re feeling is any more fleeting or transitory than the adults. When she wonders why the kids are in such a hurry to grow up, I think that’s pretty much the spirit that the film is trying so hard, the idea that they are or should be in a hurry to “grow up”. In fact, I think it questions what “growing up” even means in that kind of context.

    Ebert dances around this, too, without really realizing what the movie is doing:

    Murray is always right for a role in an Anderson film, and I wonder if it’s because they share a bemused sadness. You can’t easily imagine Murray playing a manic or a cut-up; his eyes, which have always been old eyes, look upon the world and waver between concern and disappointment. In Anderson’s films, there is a sort of resignation to the underlying melancholy of the world; he is the only American director I can think of whose work reflects the Japanese concept mono no aware, which describes a wistfulness about the transience of things. Even Sam and Suzy, sharing the experience of a lifetime, seem aware that this will be their last summer for such an adventure. Next year they will be too old for such irresponsibility.

    I think he’s right about Murray (who is really wonderful here) and Murray’s character, but the kids sense this about the adults, too, and they’re rebelling against it. They’re not about indulging in “irresponsibility”, they’re staging a rebellion against adulthood itself, and writing their own rules as they go. It reminds me, in spirit, of the perspective found in a lot of songs on Arcade Fire’s first two albums, especially “No Cars Go” – this idea of creating a world away from the dysfunction of the squabbling adults.

    I think Jeanine and I are going to see it again before it leaves theaters, and I’ll probably have more to say about it then. But I left the theater the other day feeling like I had seen a truly landmark film.

    By the way, JS, did you stay through the credits?

  2. Yes, I did. Are you referring to the child actor introducing the elements of the orchestra?

    I think Anderson’s recurrent theme in his films, particularly Rushmore, Royal Tenenbaums, and this one, is that idealism in childhood ultimately leads to disappointment in adulthood, and you’re right, Sam and Suzy seem to understand this and rebel against it.

  3. Yes, I did. Are you referring to the child actor introducing the elements of the orchestra?

    Yes, I thought that was a wonderful touch.

  4. Saw it last night and am as full of praise for it as you all are. I left halfway through the credits! Why oh why didn’t I read this first. What did I miss??

    Loved every minute of it. The leads were certainly a mix of Romeo & Juliet, and Peter Pan & Wendy (along with the scouts playing the Lost Boys) and though obvious symbolism was e.ver.y.where it was certainly not ham-fisted or shoehorned in. Everything was perfect. Except the length…too short! But such is Summer’s End – upon us too quickly and gone too soon.

    Only quibble – perhaps I missed it and someone can let me know, but it would have been nice for the star-crossed lovers to witness the moon “rise” during the short stay in their kingdom (mile 3.25 tidal inlet) thereby making the painting – and title – more meaningful. Though I’m quite certain I’m missing a reference

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