Overly precious, but visually interesting and sporadically funny, this Wes Anderson comedy revolves around two malcontent youngsters in the ’60s who find love on a secluded New England island despite protests from the girl’s parents and the boy’s Boy Scout troupe. We open with the boy’s scout leader discovering his disappearance, which is accompanied by a letter of resignation from the Scouts. It turns out that he met a girl who lives with her parents on the other side of their island, and has plotted an rendezvous with her deep in the woods. As the two pre-teens explore their bizarre, intuitive relationship, the limited police support on the island forces the scout leader to send his troupe out looking for the boy, who they never liked to begin with, and his pseudo-girlfriend, whose parents entirely disapprove of the lad’s violent history. Once they are finally discovered, and a social worker makes her way to the island to send the boy off for electroshock therapy to cure him of his antisocial habits, the two must figure out how to get off the island together and begin their lives as an awkward, adolescent couple.
Imagine if The Royal Tenenbaums began as it did, relaying the story of the family, their house, their upbringing, their neighbors and friends, and their environment. Now remember when Richie and Margot, adopted siblings in love, snuck off together to the Museum of Natural History and camped out for a week? Imagine if after learning all about the lovely, intricate world that they lived in, the entire movie consisted of their escape to the museum, while all those colorful, interesting characters were just left to look for them. Welcome to Moonrise Kingdom. The island the film takes place on is host to a bunch of fascinating characters who are immediately eschewed once the children-in-love story takes center stage. This wouldn’t sting at all if the kids were anything more than overly-precocious, Wes Anderson cliches, liking the same records and books that a Wes Anderson character would like and saying the same stupid, benign shit a typical Wes Anderson character would say (example: “I heard if you suck on a pebble it keeps you hydrated. *they suck pebbles* I brought water too.”). The success of the film hinges, crucially, on their relationship, which I totally didn’t buy. As written, the boy is a violently alienated recluse, whose anti-social outbursts make him hated by his fellow scouts, and the girl is a quietly depressed escapist, diving into her records and books for hope of life outside of their secluded island home; in the finished movie, he is a bespectacled dork in a coonskin cap who rattles off survival tips like baseball stats, and she is an aggressive loser, “more mature” in that way that older male filmmakers like to portray to imply a world weariness that, of course, is thoroughly unjustified (not every preteen has to be Matilda from Leon the Professional). Being a Wes Anderson movie, the film is consistently engaging with its visuals, creating a lovely environment out of the cloudy island locale, and the music is terrific and interesting; but imagine the deadpan lifelessness of the characters in Fantastic Mr. Fox, except with freaking human beings being that inexpressive and emotionless, and you start to get an idea of how stilted and artificial the central love story is here.
The big tragedy (or main highlight) of the film is that the rest of the cast is filled with really well-rendered, shaded characters. Edward Norton plays the boy’s scout leader, and he is hilariously boyish and endearing; Norton’s baby face and “aw, shucks” demeanor acclimate themselves well to Anderson’s stylings, and his character is immediately likable from his first appearance onward. Bruce Willis is the local police captain, a well-meaning, but schlubby man caught between doing his job and being a decent human being toward the misunderstood young boy. The girl’s parents are played by Frances McDormand and Bill Murray, and are going through a painful dilemma that brings out the best of the two actors’ talents. Murray, in particular, shows off his ability to get laughs merely by walking through a scene on more than one occasion during the film. Tilda Swinton appears as a social services worker, Jason Schwartzman shows up (of course) as a Boy Scout leader/hustler, Harvey Keitel is the captain of the local Scout branch, and Bob Balaban is hilarious as a local cartographer/meteorologist who also serves as the film’s narrator. They are uniformly funny and mannered, but their efforts are consistently marred by the slightness of the story, and the lame, overly cute performances by the central two children. While the other kid actors in the cast are strong, humorous, and well-realized, the primary couple is a massive, empty turnoff that deflates the energy from the rest of the film. Needless to say, your enjoyment of the film depends, crucially, on your feelings towards the young lovers, and if, like me, that aspect fails miserably, the film is, at best, an interesting, but lukewarm entry in the filmography of the once-untouchable Wes Anderson.
Slightly Recommended to fans of Wes Anderson, the cast, or of bad child actors pretending to fall in love while better actors react nearby. I had high hopes for the film, it being Anderson’s return to live-action filmmaking after the lukewarm Fantastic Mr. Fox; unfortunately, this is not on par with the four-peat of Rushmore, Royal Tenenbaums, Life Aquatic, and Darjeeling Limited, but rather more of an alright, Bottle Rocket sort of thing.