Movie Review: MOONRISE KINGDOM Ranks as One of Wes Anderson's Warmest, Most Affecting Films

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With Moonrise Kingdom, writer/director Wes Anderson returns to live-action filmmaking after the stop-motion hiatus that was 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox; more importantly, the film is a reassurance of sorts, proof that he hadn’t completely lost his way after the one-two punch of his beautiful-but-unfocused The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and his pretentious-and-undercooked The Darjeeling Limited.  Moonrise Kingdom shows Anderson operating at the same heartfelt, deeply moving level that made Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums so vital, but there’s something more to the new film, subtle hints that this most magical of man-children might be growing up, if only a little bit.

On the surface, though, Moonrise Kingdom is very much of a piece with everything he’s ever made.  In telling the story of preteens Suzy and Sam (newcomers Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman) who fall in love and decide to flee from their tightly regimented hometown of New Penzance (played by a variety of Rhode Island locales, including Newport, Jamestown, Narragansett Bay, West Greenwich, Rockville, South Kingstown, and Tiverton), Anderson tosses in all the aesthetic and narrative quirks that have served him so well: forbidden love, autumnal locales, eclectic needle-drops (only here will you find Hank Williams given equal air time as Benjamin Britten), as well as a cast studded with veterans from other Anderson productions (if I told you that Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman show up in key supporting roles, would you be surprised?).

Yep, everything looks the same, save for the frame.  With the exception of his debut feature – 1996’s Bottle Rocket – Anderson has shot all his live-action films in super-wide widescreen, but Moonrise Kingdom comes in at a far less expansive 1.85:1.  That look is narrower, more T.V.-sized, and it means that all his textures and details feel cramped, constrained.  Try as they might, Suzy and Sam can never really escape New Penzance – it’s an island, natch – and the 1.85:1 frame makes us feel their confinement.

For all its loveliness, Moonrise Kingdom is the first Wes Anderson film that we don’t want to live in.  It’s Anderson’s tacit admission that all is not well, that even his peerless visual eye can’t hide genuine pain and suffering.  To a person, his leads are broken, aching, regardless of whether we’re looking at Bill Murray and Frances McDormand’s miserable married couple or Suzy’s rage issues or Sam’s fear of abandonment or Bruce Willis’ alienated police captain; only Edward Norton’s cheerily professional Boy Scout Master Ward doesn’t start the film miserable, but it doesn’t take him long to get there – after he loses Sam on his watch, Ward carries the shame like an albatross.  It’s very telling that the hurricane barreling towards New Penzance inspires less urgency that Suzy and Sam’s idyllic exodus – the storm is just the punchline to a very sad joke.

And yet – yet! – Anderson fills his film with joy enough for ten movies.  A foot chase late in the film has the comic absurdity of a Buster Keaton gag, and its humor is matched only by Jason Schwartzman’s dry, deadpan turn as the most irresponsible camp counselor imaginable.  I loved how laconic Gilman’s Sam is in the face of fellow Boy Scouts who hate him, and how Anderson lets his tormentors slowly, grudgingly realize that Sam isn’t such a bad guy.  Best of all is the virtuoso setpiece showing Sam and Suzy living (and loving) in the wild; Anderson stages the sequence as a tween homage to Ingmar Bergman’s Summer with Monika, and he even goes so far as borrow a hint of that classic film’s frank sexuality.

But that’s just the world Wes Anderson has created.  It’s cold and wet and full of scars, and it’s also quite magical.  This is such a lovely, unforced piece of work, and one of the year’s best films.

Universal Studios’ Blu-ray/DVD/UltraViolet Digital Copy faithfully replicates Anderson and DP Robert Yeoman’s delicate screen palette – they shot on 16mm, so everything looks a little soft and slightly burnished.  The disc also has a gentle yet immersive 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track.

Features are where my enthusiasm wanes.  We get three short featurettes (“A Look Inside Moonrise Kingdom,” “Welcome to the Island of New Penzance” (which is really just a series of extended promos) and “Set Tour with Bill Murray”).  How short, you ask?  Combined, these run under ten minutes.  Maybe I’m just spoiled by the deluxe rollout that the Criterion Collection affords Anderson’s works, but there just isn’t much here to get excited about.

Luckily, the movie is good enough to merit a watch.  Better than good: only time will tell, but my immediate suspicion is that Moonrise Kingdom equals Anderson’s masterwork, The Royal Tenenbaums.

Moonrise Kingdom streets on October 16th.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.

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