Pretty much the only thing I knew about Moonrise Kingdom going in was that Wes Anderson made it. And as it turns out, that was really all I needed to know. The auteur makes his presence known throughout the entire film, with his signature yellow color scheme, his extremely simplistic camera set-ups, and a cast that contains some of his usual collaborators.
More importantly than any of that, this film is whimsical. Extremely whimsical. This is is a movie that’s aggressively tongue-in-cheek about how cute it is, and it wants you to know how self-aware it is. Yet all the whimsy is still very heartfelt for how forced it is, and that’s a big part of what makes the film worth watching.
Let’s take it from the top. The film is set on the fictional New Penzance Island, located somewhere off the coast of New England, a mere three days before the arrival of a record-breaking storm in 1962. The premise begins with Sam Shakusky and Suzy Bishop, played by newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, respectively. They meet, they fall in love, and they run away together. They seem like a very odd couple at first sight, given that Sam is a rather awkward bully target with huge glasses while Suzy wears makeup, perfume, and a skirt that’s a bit too short for comfort.
Still, they have a surprising amount in common. Sam’s been in foster care since his parents died so many years ago, and Suzy’s parents are in a totally loveless marriage, so they both have abandonment issues. Moreover, both are quite unpopular, with rumors of mental disturbance following them around. With that said, the two of them are surprisingly intelligent and mature for their age.
Oh, didn’t I mention? The two lovebirds are only twelve years old.
Naturally, the two leads know that any romance between them would be frowned upon in the worst case and laughed at in the best case. So they run away, and a massive search is undertaken to find them.
Luckily, Sam just happens to be a longtime Boy Scout “Khaki Scout,” with advanced knowledge of camping, forest hiking, etc. Meanwhile, Suzy shares the books and the miniature record player she brought along. The two have no shortage of ways to keep themselves entertained as they rough it in the New England wilderness, and it’s made obvious early on just how smart they are, though it’s equally obvious that they’re trying so hard to impress each other. It’s adorable.
Speaking of which, I should note that Suzy frequently reads from her books, and the passages she reads often comment on the proceedings in some way. I assume this was done to make the film seem more intellectual and well-read. But since all the books in the movie are fictional, it’s just cheating.
Anyway, there are a lot of reasons why this core relationship works. First among them is the obvious: Gilman and Hayward have phenomenal chemistry onscreen. Far more importantly, the relationship feels innocent without ever becoming too saccharine. The kids do dip their toes into more mature waters, but their inexperience is so obvious and their love for each other is obviously so pure that it feels authentic without coming off as squicky. These kids aren’t out for perverse thrills, they’re just discovering themselves as people that age are wont to do. They’re trying to act like they know what they’re doing as they court each other, but they’re really just making up the protocols as they go along. It’s very sweet, it’s very relateable, and it rings entirely true.
It’s a fortunate thing that the core romance is so effective, because it’s the thematic and narrative lynchpin of the entire film. By contrast, let’s look at some of the adults in this movie. First, we have Sam’s foster parents, who immediately disown him after he runs away with Suzy. Second are Suzy’s parents, Laura and Walt Bishop (sorry, I’m out of “Fringe” jokes), played by Frances McDormand and Bill Murray. They’re a pair of lawyers who seem to really hate each other. Indeed, Laura is having an affair with Police Captain Sharp, played against type by Bruce Willis. There’s also Tilda Swinton, whose character is only ever known as “Social Services.” She’s a cold-hearted bureaucrat who’s only interested in getting Sam back into the foster system, possibly making him a candidate for electroshock therapy or residence in a juvenile prison in the process.
These are the people who are trying to keep Sam and Suzy separate. Suzy’s parents can barely hold their own marriage together and they’re woefully inept as parents (“We’re all [our kids] have.” “It’s not enough.”), and they’re trying to keep Suzy apart from the boy she loves. Meanwhile, Sam has a talk with Sharp about how the kids are young and they don’t know what they’re doing, all while he’s carrying on with a married woman.
The movie seems to posit that for all of its beauty, love is a very tricky thing, and figuring it out doesn’t necessarily come with age. So when two people do manage to figure it out — even if those people are children — what right does anyone else have to interfere with it? The film seems to make the argument that there aren’t any hard and fast rules to romance, we just do what feels right and adapt as necessary.
I suppose I should also mention the other members of the cast. Edward Norton appears as Scout Master Ward, the leader of Sam’s (now former) Khaki Scout team. Norton does a very good job of playing a devoted leader who genuinely cares about his troupe, though it’s shown that Ward only really knows what he’s doing when everything’s going well. Otherwise, he’s not much use.
As for the Khaki Scouts themselves, they’re your basic collection of grade school boys. Some are bullies, some are sympathetic, and none of them are terribly bright. A couple of them are a little on the flat side, but their screen time is mercifully slim. It is a little jarring for these kids to go from bad guys to good guys partway through the film, but that’s only because they’re so easily impressionable, and I’m willing to cut the film a bit of slack for that. They also have a lot of very comedic moments, such as those involving a treehouse.
Props are also due to Harvey Keitel and Jason Schwartzman, both of whom make very brief but very funny appearances. Then there’s the matter of Bob Balaban, who plays the film’s narrator. The character conveys exposition by walking around the setting and talking directly into the camera. All well and good. But then the narrator acts as a kind of deus ex machina, interacting with the characters just long enough to convey some vital information at the most convenient time before disappearing, never to be mentioned by the other characters again. In any other movie, this would be an immediate red flag. In this movie, it fits right in.
The movie also features a character getting hit by lightning, only to immediately shrug it off. Someone else gets stabbed, and it’s only funny because we know that the character is going to be fine (I like to call this the “Looney Tunes” principle). Precious few of the characters act as any real human being would. These are just a few of the things that are going to divide audiences in regard to this movie. Either you’re going to reject them for making no sense, or you’re going to accept the film’s overwhelming whimsy and just roll with it.
The visuals are a very similar matter. The visuals are a strange paradox in that they’re extremely simple, yet a lot of effort was put into making them simple. When the camera moves, it’s usually in a straight line and in what appears to be a single continuous take. The movie also has a lot of static shots, all of which are so painstakingly constructed that they could almost be paintings or still photographic art. There’s also the matter of the color scheme, which is so yellow that it’s borderline monochrome while also lending the film a very sunny look.
Throughout the entire film, the cinematography calls attention to just how simple it is. You’re either going to find this incredibly annoying, or you’re going to marvel at the amount of work that went into it.
Put simply, your enjoyment of Moonlight Kingdom is going to depend heavily on your tolerance for Wes Anderson’s unique style of filmmaking. The young romance at the movie’s center feels wonderfully authentic, but everything surrounding it feels completely artificial. The movie hinges entirely on forced whimsy as only Anderson could deliver, which will either make the film grating or interesting, depending on your point of view.
For my part, I thought that it was a very well-made film, with a sweet little story presented as a kind of modern fairy tale. If that sounds like your cup of tea, then by all means, check this film out.