Moonrise Kingdom: A Nice Place to Visit and I Wish I Could Live There
There are many filmmakers whose work I admire from a visual standpoint, some from that of the characters they create, some from the dialogue. But if you were ask me if there was a director’s whose filmography I wish was real, I don’t think I’d hesitate a moment before I said Wes Anderson’s.
Anderson is one of those moviemakers whose style is so distinct that he is one of those directors whose work is so easy to parody — I remember Saturday Night Live telling a Halloween story he made and I understand that there are some online artists now trying to see what The Hunger Games and Harry Potter would like if he was director. Anderson’s films have such a distinct appearance to them — both in his repertoire of actors, his visual style and his methods of direction — that they seem to take place in a universe all their own. That’s not a slur on them, but it does give so many of them an appearance than I don’t think that Anderson’s ability as a writer and a director have ever been given their full due. Many critics — not Roger Ebert, who always seemed to be one of his greatest admirers — had a lot of trouble accepting the style of his movies and even the ones that were clearly brilliant were regarded as too ‘stylized’. This has always struck me as an odd position for those same critics who worship at the altar of Tarantino and Spielberg; these men have films whose style you can recognize automatically but they rarely receive the derision that Anderson has.
The tone that one hears so often with an Anderson film, usually in a derogatory fashion, is ‘wistful’. One of the synonyms for wistful is melancholy, and beneath the good humor, lively direction and characters is indeed a sense of melancholy. In Rushmore, Jason Schwartzman plays a student who is so determined to be active it hides how horrible an academic he is and how much he is ashamed of his blue-collar roots. The Royal Tenenbaums involves a family of child prodigies who in adulthood have wasted their potential and are all suffering from an air of depression. Darjeeling Limited involves three siblings who are traveling through India trying to bond though they are reeling from abandonment from their mother. This sense of depression certainly pervades the two youthful protagonists at the center of Moonrise Kingdom. Sam the boy is a foster child who has been constantly rejected and returned by foster parents over and over throughout his young life. Suzy is the only child of two parents in an unhappy marriage, and it is clear that she can sense this.
In his rave review of the movie Ebert writes: “Wes Anderson’s mind must be an exciting place for a story idea to be born.” It is also a world where he seems determined to create an endless supply of detailed props that the viewer so wishes were real just so they could experience them. The Royal Tenenbaums gave the impression of being a story told from a book, even though it was original. Who would not want to read that book? Who would not want to read one of the plays written by Max Fisher or Margot Tenenbaum, both young playwrights in the world of Anderson, experience an actual episode of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, or read another article of The French Dispatch? In this book, Susy is constantly looking at or reading young adult books that our purely fictional. Anderson could have had her reading A Wrinkle in Time or The Catcher in The Rye; he created these books for the sole purpose of the viewer to see them and wonder.
Anderson films always have their own atmosphere. In many of them there is a narrator, telling us outside events. In this film, there is one and he is played by that brilliant character actor Bob Balaban, who tells us that we are on an island off the coast of New York in 1965, just a few days away from one of the biggest storms of the century. There are many ways to tell this story or it could come as much a surprise to the viewer as it does to the people in the films, but Anderson does not believe in suspense as much as mood.
Like all Anderson films by this point in his career (this was his seventh movie) the cast had several performers who had become part of Anderson’s ensemble, most notably Bill Murray, whose late career renaissance was almost entirely built on the movies of Anderson. Murray, for all the stories we have heard about him recently, always seems perfect for an Anderson film, in Ebert’s eyes, “because the two seemed to share a bemused sadness…his eyes which have always been old eyes, look upon the world and waver between concern and despair.” He was perfect in being trapped in an eternal loop in Groundhog Day and in some kind of perpetual holding pattern in Lost in Translation. Here Murray plays Susy’s father who seems only slightly surprised to learn that his daughter has run away from home, and only slightly more surprised when his wife tells him it might be because how miserable she is.
Owen Wilson, who to this point had been one of Anderson’s co-writer and frequent co-star does not appear in this movie: Anderson co-wrote with Roman Coppola, Sofia’s brother who became the sixth member of the Coppola family to receive an Oscar nomination for this film. Jason Schwartzman, who was always in Anderson’s film also makes a brief appearance in it as Cousin Ben. But Anderson who by now had gathered the ability to attract an extraordinary cast (by this point Anjelica Houston, Adrian Brody, Gwyneth Paltrow and Cate Blanchett had all appeared his movies) expanded his repertoire to bring in a new group of performers, who have since become recurring performers in his cast of players. Here is Frances McDormand, playing Susy’s mother, trying to deal with everything that is unfolding. Here is Edward Norton, the by-the-book scoutmaster whose reaction to the escape of one of his scouts is “Jiminy Christmas. He flew the coop.” and starts looking through his handbook for the correct procedure. Here is Bruce Willis, again demonstrating his ability for comedy, as the sole police presence on the island and the only person who seems to have the children’s best interest at heart. And sweeping in with all the abilities of a villain is Tilda Swinton, identified in the movie only as Social Services. Most would return to Anderson’s world in the movies he has subsequently made.
The adults are surprised to know that Sam and Suzy even know each other, and indeed when we find out how they do. Children themselves are rarely fully developed in an Anderson film and indeed much of the first part of the movie deals with everybody realizing they’re missing before they even start to talk. We are aware, however, of Suzy’s presence in the opening credits. In a title sequence that I will never forget, Suzy is listening to Benjamin Britten’s ‘A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra as the action takes place; we hear all of it before we see Suzy.” We note her aquiline features and her long distant stare; somehow it doesn’t surprise me that the first time that Sam and Suzy meet Suzy is in the costume of an eagle for the church’s story of Noah’s Ark.
Sam and Suzy spend much of the next year writing each other letters, which initially go on for a while and Anderson keeps cutting over the narration as we see the two talking. Eventually the letters get shorter and shorter to the point the last two just say: “When?” and “Tomorrow.” The first time we see the two in the same scene they are staring across a meadow; Sam burdened with all the camping and survival gear they will need, Suzy with the books I described, her kitten and the portable record player she was listening to Britten too, with of course, extra batteries.
The two follow an Indian trail to a secluded cove that they name Moonrise Kingdom. There they make their camp, which a scout later tells Sam is ‘the best pitched tent he’s ever seen,” read their books, look at the water and where Suzy asks Sam to pierce her ears.
Sam and Suzy, I should mention, are both twelve, the age where love is nowhere near sexual and in the era in which the movie takes place, may not have even been discussed to them. Nor is romance in the traditional sense, although at the climax of the film the two ask if they can be married. All they want is to have an adventure where they can live outside the realm of adults, if only for a few days. They are aware that this is the last summer they can do it. Next year, they will have to give up childish things.
I think that is the reason, despite Ebert’s insistence that this movie could be set at any time, Anderson sets in 1965. America’s innocence is not yet lost and isolation from the world is still possible. Technology in the traditional sense does not exist in the world of Wes Anderson (I can’t perceive for a moment his character even using something like a pager) and this is one of the few times when a child could get lost on an island and parents would only start to panic when they did not come home for dinner. Moonrise Kingdom would not have the same effect if Suzy listened to her music on even a Walkman.
It is worth remembering several things about an Anderson film. Everything about it fundamentally is ridiculous if you think about it and it is basically a comedy. But none of the actors play it for laughs or treat the material with anything less than other seriousness. Even when Sam at the climax of the hurricane demands that he will not come to safety unless he and Suzy are allowed to wed, no one dares call him a fool or to be reasonable. They just find a way to accommodate it. And because the actors and the dialogue take it seriously, one does not laugh the same hysterical way one would if we were to encounter this situation if it were to play out in the hands of a ‘typical’ teenage love story. These events are far more ridiculous than they would be a Judy Blume book and the entire atmosphere is that of a fantasy. The thing is a fantasy can often be more involving than real life.
Because of the fact that Moonrise Kingdom premiered in July of 2012 and because it is fundamentally a comedy, it did not do particularly well at the Oscars, getting only a nomination for Best Screenplay. It did fairly well at the box office, though, making $45 million on an investment of $16 million, which in a summer of The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises was frankly incredible. The nomination was his second for Best Screenplay after The Royal Tenenbaums more than eleven years earlier. His next film The Grand Budapest Hotel was his most well received film to date: it received nine Oscar nominations and won four of them; Anderson received his first Best Director nod.
Anderson has also been far more well-received for his ventures into animation. His stop-motion films show a far clearer ability to adapt to Anderson’s visual world. Both of his animated features Fantastic Mr. Fox and Isle of Dogs were nominated for Best Animated Film and are in my opinion, two masterpieces among the world of animation in the 21st Century. One of my fondest memories is when a group of friends and I went out to see Isle of Dogs in the theaters in the winter of 2018. It is one of the more glorious times I’ve had in a theater. Anderson is, if anything, just as accomplished at getting voice talent for his movies as Pixar does, almost all of his regulars showed up to do voice roles, even for a few moments. I never knew until that moment that Bryan Cranston playing the voice of a dog was something my life desperately needed; I’m so glad that Anderson achieved it.
Later this year Anderson’s next film is scheduled to debut on Netflix. It is one of the few times he has chosen to adapt someone else’s work and I know it because I am familiar with it. I read The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar when I was nine years old, thinking that because the author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was the author, it was a book for children. It is the story of a man who, when he is excluded from a card game, finds himself reading a book that tells the story of an Indian mystic who manages to find a way to see through any object possible, including to look at a playing card when it is face down. Sugar naturally focuses on this part of it and spend the next several years training himself to do just that to become the richest man possible. However, after his first night, he goes through what amounts to a spiritual growth and decides to do something different.
This story is set at least in part in India and 1920s England, is set in casinos across the globe and eventually involves Sugar hiring a great Hollywood makeup artist and costume designer to help him. It is, in short, the kind of story that, if Wes Anderson did not exist, he would have to be brought to life to do it justice. I expect Anderson to make Roald Dahl’s vision his own and create another world that the filmgoer wishes were real even if they know better.