'Moonrise Kingdom' Is Paradise
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
"Moonrise Kingdom," the new movie from Wes Anderson ("Rushmore," "The Darjeeling Limited," "Fantastic Mr. Fox") offers paradise sought, paradise gained and paradise lost, all in very little over 90 minutes. This enchanting fantasy -- one of its key points of reference is Benjamin Britten's operatic adaptation on Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" -- is also a heartbreaking evocation not just of young love but of futile lifelong quests to recapture fleeting moments of magic we experience, and how humans can and will imprison themselves in search of lost time.
Sounds like a blast, right? Actually, in large part, it is. Visually, right from the get-go. From the very first frames, viewers conversant with the work of director and co-writer Anderson (he concocted the script with Roman Coppola) might be delighted to find themselves firmly implanted in Wes World. It's 1965 in a Northeastern America island community. The movie more or less begins with a cutaway set of a large house by the water being very deliberately explored. Anderson's moving camera makes exceptionally precise horizontal dollies from room to room, pausing to take in each individual setting depicted; it's like a fluid slide show of dioramas. There's something faux-craftsy and primitive about the depicted rooms. But Anderson's style doesn't quite evoke folk art; rather, it plays like sophisticated reimagining of the idea of folk art, James McNeill Whistler doing Grandma Moses, say.
This is all by way of introducing an unhappy family of three boys and a girl, headed by Frances McDormand and Bill Murray. The girl, Suzy (Kara Hayward), with her age-inappropriate Carnaby Street eye makeup and intense affect, right away feels like a 12-year-old version of a specific kind of trouble, a precursor to Natalie Portman's character in "The Darjeeling Limited," come to think of it. On another part of the island, a troop of "Khaki Scouts," led by a conscientious albeit chain-smoking scoutmaster played by Edward Norton, has a single scout missing: Sam (Jared Gilman), by all accounts the most despised member of the troop.
Turns out Sam and Suzy met on an enchanted evening a year prior, during a performance of a particularly apt musical theater piece by Britten. They have been corresponding ever since, and have planned an escape together. In the event of their disappearance, the adult community, such as it is (Norton's scoutmaster is a quiet knot of self-doubt if not self-loathing, McDormand and Murray maintain politesse with each other in denial of obvious repellence, and Bruce Willis' stolid police chief is quietly eating himself up over having to keep his affair with McDormand secret; the only thing close to a fulfilled grown-up here is Bob Balaban's narrator-cum-meteorologist) mobilizes the resentful scouts to find the pair. The young not-yet-lovers pitch camp in a particularly gorgeous cove where they swim, dance in their underwear to a Françoise Hardy record, experiment with kissing, and more. They end as lovers ... and are then found, to face the consequences of their actions, which in one case might entail being shipped to an orphanage by a stern woman who goes only by the name Social Services (Tilda Swinton).
The two kids are lovely, and to the extent that one may object that their precociousness and preciousness is improbable, well, one can only sigh. One reason "Moonrise Kingdom" does not function as a realistic depiction of young love, or 1965, or any such thing, is that it is not conceived as a realist work. Even more so than in "The Darjeeling Limited," Anderson is here working in the tradition of the filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The duo's "The Red Shoes," "I Know Where I'm Going!," "A Canterbury Tale" and so many more were examples of what Powell called "the composed film," a movie in which each element was worked out to meticulously mesh with the other, a movie in which all of the art forms that inform movies -- painting, music, theater, sculpture, the whole lot -- are brought to bear with equal emphasis, a movie in which the contours of the real and the fantastic rub freely against each other to produce ... well, hopefully a kind of aesthetic alchemy. "Moonrise Kingdom" partakes of the traditions of, among other things, the fairy tale, the Looney Tunes cartoon and, yes, Shakespeare. One of the film's pivotal moments comes at nightfall, and the Britten-studded soundtrack offers one of the most beguiling musical moments from that composer's opera of "A Midsummer Night's Dream": the fairies' song "On the Ground, Sleep Sound," which assures that "all will be well."
Will it? In the midst of all of Anderson's gorgeous design and contrivance are quietly desperate adults and deeply troubled children who use their skills to contrive an escape to any world that they are welcome to, only to find that they don't have permission to stay, and that life goes on anyway. The house in which Suzy and her family live may be colorful and beautiful, but it's a prison, and there's a strong sense in which the movie says that it can't not be prison. The artistic imagination enlivens the surfaces of such environments, to the extent that many can mistake what this film is propagating as jejune whimsy. But "Moonrise Kingdom" is at heart very much a tragicomedy. If it is a Fabergé egg of a movie, it's one with a very grave heart. The effect of the movie's negative capability, then, is to create an exhilarating viewing experience that nevertheless carries a haunting weight. It's an extraordinary thing, from start to finish.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.