For all his distinctive aesthetic touches and familiar thematic concerns, Wes Anderson isn’t a particularly predictable filmmaker, and no film came as more of a surprise than 2009’s stop-motion trifle Fantastic Mr Fox, which melded Roald Dahl’s world with Anderson’s own melancholic pre-occupations. However, while Moonrise Kingdom, the director’s new film, may not be tied to a much-loved children’s story, it is nonetheless a continuation of his exploration of childlike whimsy.
When 12 year old boy Sam Shakusky (newcomer Jared Gilman) hightails it from his Scout camp, he teams up with his tween sweetheart, Suzy Bishop (the equally fresh-faced Kara Hayward) for a pre-pubescent elopement through an isolated island community in remote New England. Armed with a BB Gun, a small yacht and a Davy Crockett hat, Sam is a fastidious mini-adventurer, who uses his Scout skills with expert efficiency. Suzy, a pair of prized binoculars slung around her neck, has a penchant for French pop and escapist fantasy fiction, reading seemingly made-up novels with evocative titles such as The Girl From Jupiter. Together, they’re on the run. From what? The Scout troop bullies who tormented Sam? Or Suzy’s idiosyncratic family, headed by matriarch Frances McDormand and patriarch Bill Murray?
Whatever it is, they’re on an Arthur Ransome-like adventure, indulging in flights of the imagination while immersing themselves in the natural surroundings of New Penzance. They’re a diminutive Bonnie & Clyde, on the lam from the local authorities – a police-force-of-one consisting only of Bruce Willis’ bumbling sheriff – and the deputised Scouts-in-pursuit, who spread a dragnet across the region, searching with spiked clubs and bows in hand.
There is a simple irony behind Moonrise Kingdom, and it’s one that Anderson has deployed before. It’s that of high tension plotting in a low stakes world, where characters adopt exaggerated poses under a remarkably self-aware directorial eye. Luckily, the earnestness that is inherent within young love, small town life and the noble tradition of Scouting proves to be a rich vein of comedy, and there is a refreshing daftness that accompanies Anderson’s trademark dry humour.
However, despite this inviting humour and freshness of perspective, Moonrise Kingdom is still straight-jacketed within its director’s formal bag of tricks. As ever, his production design, cinematography and composition are meticulously pristine: beautiful, but almost self-consciously so. Exterior establishing shots use miniature models for that otherworldly quality, whereas interiors are toy-like in their delightful deadness. Suzy’s household, the setting for a lengthy opening sequence, is laid out like a doll’s house, with the camera swooping up and down along a lateral fourth wall. Throughout, scenes are choreographed along horizontal planes, unfolding like the Bayeux Tapestry in absurdly long tracking shots.
This arch, affected air also stretches to the cultural landscape that Anderson and co-writer Roman Coppola create. With its evocation of a rustic, Autumnal 1960s, Moonrise Kingdom shares more than just a colour palette with Fantastic Mr Fox. But with every music cue (Hank Williams, Benjamin Britten, Francoise Hardy), this strange mix of retro kitsch and knowing nostalgia starts to speak less to the inner child, and more to the hipster within. Its animated predecessor was a dysfunctional family flick masquerading as a kids’ caper, but the interplay between childlike awe and adult affectation in Moonrise Kingdom is harder to untangle.
This conflict between the fanciful and the formal has been seen in Anderson’s films from his debut Bottle Rocket onwards, but let’s not accuse him of repeating himself just yet. Indeed, in Moonrise Kingdom he adds a subtle, yet effective twist to the proceedings. Unlike the nagging neurotics of the past – even Mr Fox had existential woes – the assembled kooks of New Penzance turn inward not to navel gaze, but to rally around their runaway duo. And in their innocence, their sweetness and their sincerity, Anderson finds something that has often been lost among his pitch-perfect aesthetic and clinical composition: warmth.