There is a basic rule of thumb often imparted to actors about how to chose their roles: never work with children or animals. It’s easy to see why: both are unpredictable, inexperienced, and difficult to control. Wes Anderson attempts to subvert this age-old logic in his latest whimsical homage to the dysfunctional family, Moonrise Kingdom. Unfortunately, he doesn’t succeed.
The movie stars two preteens, both in their first-ever turns in front of the camera: Sam (Jared Gillman), an “emotionally disturbed” wilderness scout, and his surprisingly violent, no-nonsense paramour Suzy (Kara Hayward). The children are both abandoned, physically or emotionally, by their families early in the film. In response, they make a pact to run away together and live in the wilderness of an island off the coast of New England.
Like nearly all of Anderson’s films, Moonrise Kingdom bears little resemblance to anyone’s actual childhood. The colors are fluorescently bright and the sets and clothing are twee and kitschy as an antique dollhouse. Anderson, who also co-wrote the film with Roman Coppola, fills his young characters with all the wisdom of burned-out adults in one moment, and the precocious innocence and naivety of bright young school children in the next.
This is an unrealistic combination, but that’s what Anderson’s work is all about. The yellow-hued summer meadows and too on-the-nose scout uniforms are constant reminders that Moonrise Kingdom is not intended as a depiction of pseudo-reality, but rather a fairytale, an imagining of what a childhood in the 1960s would be like if that era’s stereotypical tropes were all the decade actually contained.
All of this makes for a very pretty picture, but a rather emotionless center. Sam and Suzy profess their love for one another, experience their first sexual acts, and even get hitched. But they do it all with a dead-eyed, monotone air that makes it appear as though they have no inner monologues at all. The children are meant to proclaim Anderson’s message that, unlike the world-weary, apathetic adults who’ve already bungled their lives, these youngins can still be excited about what the world has to offer them. But directing his actors to sound as though they’re reading stale life philosophies off of cue cards has the opposite affect.
Moonrise Kingdom stars a few of Anderson’s favorites players, including Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman, as well as a cadre of other recognizable stars. The adults they portray are given little more emotional depth than their offspring, though their comedic moments—Edward Norton’s continual appearance in a scout uniform comes to mind—are well received. Tilda Swinton, looking like a foreboding airline hostess and referred to only as “Social Services,” is also a treat.
In fact, much of the film’s humor comes from the wardrobe of its overly-dressed characters, outfitted by costume designer Kasia Walicka-Maimone. Suzy’s mother (Frances McDormand) stomps around the house in waders, and the island’s put-upon meteorologist/historian (Bob Balaban), who also serves as the film’s narrator, shows up in various locations wearing an ensemble that could only be an homage to the Travelocity gnome. Sam insists on donning a coonskin cap, Davy Crockett-style, and both children also appear in animal costumes in at several points throughout the film. All this overly quirky, self-consciously peculiar clothing serves as a mirror to Moonrise Kingdom’s equally bizarre plot, which grows stranger by the scene.
Fans of Anderson’s work will undoubtedly like the film, which is funny and oddball in the extreme. But those looking for a bit more depth over sheer retro quirkiness might want to take a pass.