There’s no mistaking a Wes Anderson movie, and with his latest work he’s more distinctive than ever. That’s both a good and bad thing. While it’s great to have a defiantly original writer/director operating successfully within Hollywood, his heavily stylized, almost theatrical approach is so overpoweringly quirky that it threatens to obscure the plot and message of the film. If you’re not a fan of Anderson, this film won’t change your mind. However, if you’re onboard with his oddball oeuvre you’ll be right at home in his lighthearted and nostalgic new world.
On a small island off the coast of New England during the 1960s, the handful of residents are left to their own devices for most of the year except for summer camping season. During that time, troops of boy campers descend on the plentiful wilderness of the island to earn badges, make friendships, and enjoy life in the great outdoors. One of those campers is an outcast, a wimpy, bespectacled young lad named Sam who has poor social skills but excellent survival talent. Meanwhile, a local teen daughter named Suzy longs to escape her humdrum island life and treasures her longtime pen pal correspondence with Sam. When Sam and Suzy both mysteriously disappear, the frantic adults on the island set off on a manhunt, led by a scout master (Edward Norton) on one side, Suzy’s parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) on the other, and the local cop (Bruce Willis) in between.
Sam and Suzy embark on an ambitious adventure together retracing the steps of an ancient trail, exploring their growing love for each other along the way. It’s a sweet first-love story, although as unflinchingly shot by Anderson makes for some uncomfortable viewing moments considering the age of the subjects. The kids deliver lines that don’t sound very natural for their age, and their acting delivery is largely monotone and passionless, and yet there’s something about their simple tale that makes for a mostly heartwarming central plot.
This being an Anderson production though, that basic plot gets sidetracked with flighty side stories involving an affair between the Willis and McDormand characters, a drumming-down of the Norton scout master by chief scout Harvey Keitel due to his failure to control his troops, and an adoption drama revolving around the orphan Sam that involves Tilda Swinton as a social worker. None of these stories are essential to the overall feel of the piece, and seem to serve solely as enticement for the prominent actors drawn to the production.
Anderson establishes a firm sense of place and time, once again leaning on his nostalgic obsession with earth tone fashion and antiquated props such as old-time binoculars and a portable record player to define the era. He also sets up such heavily staged scenes that you almost expect to see tape Xs on the ground, eliminating any sense of naturalism in favor of his theatrical framing. There’s no denying that he’s an original and meticulous creator, but ultimately his core love story is the best aspect of this eccentric film.
The Blu-ray image is also meticulous, with very little noticeable artifacting. Sound quality is nothing special due to the decidedly low-key nature of the work, but environmental effects help to expand the soundstage during the film’s extensive outdoor scenes. The bonus features are extensive and include promo clips and behind-the-scenes interviews with the principal cast members.
Moonrise Kingdom is also available from The Criterion Collection on Blu-ray and DVD.