Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom” (2012)

Notable Festivals: Cannes (Opening Night)

Inducted Into the Criterion Collection: 2015

After the reinvigorating creative (if not financial) success of 2009’s FANTASTIC MR. FOX, director Wes Anderson embarked on a new live action script with Roman Coppola, who during the writing of 2007’S THE DARJEELING LIMITED had helped Anderson tamp down the escalating scope of his earlier narratives while honing in on the essence of the stories themselves.  This pared-down approach valued simple, concise, and emotionally resonant stories over the increasingly-complicated and meandering plotting of earlier films like THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS (2001) and THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU (2004).  After a series of live action features set in romanticized, exotic international locales, Anderson cast his gaze back stateside to explore the uniquely American culture of boy scouts.  Anderson had made his career by exploring the inner lives of eccentric characters oblivious to the worlds outside their insular bubbles, so it’s something of a wonder that it would take seven features before he told a story set within the institution of scout-hood.  After all, with their crisply-starched uniforms, fetishization of craftsmanship, and boyish eagerness for adventure, the archetypical boy scout troop is perfectly suited to Anderson’s particular aesthetic.  This inspired melding of artist and subject matter resulted in MOONRISE KINGDOM (2012), a triumphant restoration of Anderson’s original promise that would go on to become one of the director’s most beloved films.

Sometimes, in order to move forward, we must move back– and in that sense, MOONRISE KINGDOM finds Anderson and his production team (producers Jeremy Dawson, Steven Rales and Scott Rudin) going back to basics.  In accordance with the conceits of a simpler story with smaller stakes, Anderson was given a budget of 16 million dollars to work with– his smallest since the scrappy days of BOTTLE ROCKET (1996).  The film takes place in the summer of 1965 on the fictional island of New Penzance, a sleepy seaside community off of the Massachusetts coast.  A young boy named Sam (Jared Gilman) and a young girl named Suzy (Kara Hayward) are two star-crossed lovers who just want to escape from the stifling rule of their parents (or in Sam’s case, his boy scout troop) and be together.  After concocting a convoluted escape plan via a series of exchanged love letters, Sam and Suzy fly their respective coops and meet up to begin their new, independent life together.  Their concerned parents, who themselves are beset by adult romantic troubles far removed from the uncomplicated idylls of their kids’ puppy love, organize an island-wide search party.  Both parties’ efforts are given sincere urgency when they learn that a massive hurricane is headed their way– a storm of historic proportions that threatens to change their insulated way of life forever.

MOONRISE KINGDOM represents a major shift for Anderson in terms of his cast, eschewing most of his regular troupe of stock players save for two or three.  For instance, it’s the first film of Anderson’s films in which his earliest core collaborator, Owen Wilson, was absent entirely in the making of it.  It’s a testament to Anderson’s ease with talent that his cast of mostly-new faces feel like they’ve always been a part of the director’s eccentric stable.  Bruce Willis explores an unexpected facet of his tough-guy cop persona as Captain Sharp, the sleepy island’s sole lawman.  Leaning into his advanced years with a wisp of greying hair and coke-bottle glasses, Willis delivers a soulful, nuanced performance that’s rich with an unspoken history of regret and disappointment.  Edward Norton is an inspired choice as Scout Master Ward, the khaki scouts’ doggedly determined leader, barnstorming around Anderson’s carefully staged tableaus with a restrained sensitivity and hilarious lack of self-awareness.  Frances McDormand, who has consistently delivered brilliant performances for directors Joel and Ethan Coen, does the same for Anderson as Mrs. Bishop, mother to our main female protagonist, Suzy, and a pragmatic lawyer whose unhappiness has driven her into Captain Sharp’s arms.  Tilda Swinton is admittedly a very unique looking woman that, while stunningly beautiful, arguably falls outside the mass media’s conventional ideals of feminine beauty– so the opportunity for her to indulge in conventional femininity is a rare one indeed.  Her character, simply named Social Services, is a meticulously-coiffed government hack who ends up becoming something of the film’s de facto antagonist.

Bob Balaban routinely breaks the fourth wall as MOONRISE KINGDOM’s Narrator, a collegiate, Hemingway-esque presence that lends the film an appropriate degree of nautical New England authenticity.  Considering his early work as a young Martin Scorsese’s cinematic muse, it was only a matter of time until Anderson (who early in his own career had been called “the next Scorsese”) enlisted the efforts of esteemed character actor Harvey Keitel, who appears briefly here in the role of Commander Pierce, the gruff head honcho at Fort Lebanon.  Of course, no discussion of MOONRISE KINGDOM’s cast would be replete without the mention of its two leads, Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward.  Both made their film debut here, with their endless supply of quirky charm making up for their lack of experience.  Hayward channels THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS’ Margot Tenenbaum with her thick eyeliner and deadpan, artistic attitude.  Gilman plays Sam, an orphan and a precocious young khaki scout who brings to mind a younger, more bookish version of RUSHMORE’s Max Fischer.

Speaking of Max Fischer, Jason Schwartzman is one of three familiar faces in MOONRISE KINGDOM.  He plays Cousin Ben, an aloof wiseass in sunglasses who serves in the senior leadership at Fort Lebanon.  Anderson’s brother, Eric Chase Anderson, appears in a brief cameo as Keitel’s assistant.  Finally, Bill Murray puts in his requisite appearance as Mr. Bishop, Suzy’s father.  Murray’s role here is his largest since THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU, effortlessly channeling that particular flavor of Connecticut/New England WASP with his loud pants and a weary sense of privileged entitlement.  Much like the other characters he plays in Anderson’s films, the character of Mr. BIshop is a sad sack who is well aware his wife has made him a cuckold, but lacks the anger or passion to do anything about it.

The fact that many of Anderson’s newer collaborators– Tilda Swinton, Edward Norton, and Harvey Keitel– would return for his 2014 feature THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (in even smaller roles) speaks volumes about the immense enjoyment Anderson’s casts get out of working with him.  Purportedly, many members of the cast like Norton and Schwartzman actually moved in to the mansion Anderson and his technical collaborators had rented for themselves during the production of MOONRISE KINGDOM– forsaking the creature comforts of luxury hotels entirely.  Anderson has a reputation for treating his collaborators like family, evidenced in the return of key craftspeople like cinematographer Robert Yeoman and editor Andrew Weisblum.  The production’s back-to-basics approach is reflected in the lo-fi nature of the film’s cinematography.  In a bid to evoke the soft nostalgia of a bygone era, MOONRISE KINGDOM was shot on Super 16mm film.  This meant that, by virtue of his acquisition format, the film would be Anderson’s first live action film since BOTTLE ROCKET to choose the 1.85:1 Academy aspect ratio over the wider anamorphic frame.  This decision has a chain-reaction effect on subsequent decisions down the line, from framing, to blocking, to the movement of the camera.  While his compositions are still characteristically flat, Anderson’s frames are not as symmetrical and balanced as they are in previous works.  The framing is a lot closer, utilizing conventional over-the-shoulder compositions in dialogue scenes.  While there’s the expected, ubiquitous employment of lateral dolly moves, whip-pans, slow-motion ensemble moments, and carefully curated top-down hand inserts, Anderson also builds upon his embrace of chaotic naturalism in THE DARJEELING LIMITED with a fair amount of handheld camerawork and long shots that dwell on natural environments. The incorporation of split-screen techniques during phone conversations, when combined with Anderson’s uncharacteristic use of the Academy aspect ratio, speaks to a burgeoning desire to experiment with the size and shape of his frame– a desire he’d go on to explore brilliantly in THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL.

Anderson’s films have always had a timeless sense about them, due in large part to the presence of anachronistic set dressings, props, costumes, and the like.  Even with MOONRISE KINGDOM– a period film strictly set in 1965– production designer Adam Stockhausen manages to convey a world that belongs to any decade, yet no decade in particular.  The film is awash in muted, worn yellows, oranges, greens, and pinks, evoking the autumnal earthiness of the story’s setting.  The color blue is used sparingly, save for night sequences that take on a moody cobalt hue.  True to Anderson form, the various sets are designed to have a distinct, expressionistic dollhouse quality to them– almost like somebody’s memory of a space rather than an accurate recreation of it.  This goes double during the film’s climactic rescue sequence atop the church during a hurricane.  Anderson pares down his color palette to blacks, whites, and the aforementioned cobalt blue, while the church set itself is reduced to a minimalistic abstraction resembling the Gothic spires of German Expressionism.  The overall effect resembles an old silent film, an impression that surely isn’t accidental on Anderson’s part.

The pacing of Anderson’s films have always been jaunty and tight, and part of MOONRISE KINGDOM’s charm is how quickly Andrew Weisblum’s edit moves the story along, trimming excess fat while never sacrificing an endearing character moment.  The edit itself is notable in that there’s considerably more cutting within the individual scenes, whereas Anderson’s previous works tended to favor longer scenes that moved the camera instead of simply cutting to a new angle.  Whether it’s a practical decision made by budgetary concerns or a directorial choice on Anderson’s part, the development is certainly hard to ignore.  The film’s swift pace is complemented by returning composer Alexandre Desplat’s score, which reflects the quasi-militaristic world of boy scouts with a marching staccato of bugles and snare drums set against a lushly eclectic mix of orchestral instruments, bells, a boys’ choir, and even a musical saw.  Anderson subverts his own habit of incorporating rock cues here by pairing the soulful crooning ballads of country star Hank Williams and the avante-garde midcentury French pop of Francoise Hardy.  Despite stemming from cultures that were continents apart, their pairing in the context of MOONRISE KINGDOM is unexpectedly complementary.  Williams’ sad cowboy songs reflect the regret that the adult characters feel over how their lives have turned out– a regret that they mistakenly thought would be left behind with the rest of the world when they started their new lives in the isolated island community of New Penzance.  Hardy’s lusty art rock echoes the exotic unpredictability of first love, which Sam and Suzy spend the film eagerly fumbling through.   The film’s true guiding light, as far as music is concerned, is English composer Benjamin Britten, whose deconstructed operas and classical works captivated the imagination of a prepubescent Anderson, and directly inspired the tone of MOONRISE KINGDOM.  The character of Britten’s compositions evokes a bygone collective innocence that is tantamount to the success of Anderson’s vision, which he arguably might not have achieved without it.

While Anderson’s visual aesthetic is evolving outward to assimilate increasingly diverse influences, his recurring thematic and narrative tropes seem to be condensing inward, crystallizing into a deliriously charming, if predictable, confection.  His tendency to compose his scenes as a miniaturized diorama encapsulated by an implied proscenium is more present than ever, as does the presence of the tricks of the stagecraft trade (in the form of plays, auditoriums, masks, costumes, etc).  There’s an element of theatricality to the characters’ “normal” costumes as well, with an emphasis on the eccentric manners of dress that characterize the isolated denizens of New Penzance.  Uniforms are also a significant aspect of Anderson’s sartorial fascinations, stretching all the way back to BOTTLE ROCKET with Dignan’s insistence on his heist crew wearing matching canary yellow jumpsuits.  In MOONRISE KINGDOM, the ubiquitousness of the khaki scout uniforms is the obvious embodiment of this conceit, but smaller examples like Captain Sharp’s stark, pressed policeman’s uniform further tie the characters’ sartorial sensibilities to their identities.

Finally, Anderson’s work is fundamentally informed by the melancholic innocence of Charles Schulz’s PEANUTS comics, and the director even goes so far as to homage his influences by naming one of the film’s dogs Snoopy.  The characters of both properties revolve around the idea of children possessing the cognizance and self-awareness of adults, oftentimes coming across as more mature and insightful than their older brethren.  In MOONRISE KINGDOM, indeed it seems that the only sane people on the island are the lovestruck kids at the center of it.  The melancholic bent that gives Anderson’s films their resonant emotional heft continues with MOONRISE KINGDOM, touching on the psychological ravages of adultery, regret, and absentee parents.  Unfaithful spouses run rampant through Anderson’s work, but the bittersweet affair between Captain Sharp and Mrs. Bishop (and its defeating effect on Mr. Bishop) is especially touching– an effect no doubt stemming from Anderson’s own experiences with the complicated virtues of love as he’s grown older (the film is dedicated to his girlfriend, Juman Malouf).  Besides his outspoken qualities, plucky young Sam has another connection to RUSHMORE’s Max Fischer in that he has grown up without the benefit of two parents in a conventional nuclear family scenario.  While Max was raised by his father, Sam is unlucky enough to be an outright orphan. having lost both his parents earlier in life.  The open acknowledgment of the more-tragic aspects of life grounds the confectionary whimsy of Anderson’s work, bringing balance by adding sour to the sweet and giving MOONRISE KINGDOM’s nostalgic, wistful tone a profound emotional heft. 

MOONRISE KINGDOM opened the Cannes Film Festival, where its warm reception fueled positive buzz that (despite its limited release) translated into healthy box office and vociferous approval from critics.  The capstone to the film’s success would be Anderson and Coppola’s Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, restoring the director’s reputation as the darling of film critics and aficionados worldwide.  Like THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU before it, MOONRISE KINGDOM even had an unexpected effect on pop culture with the adoption of Sam and Suzy’s iconic appearance as a couples’ Halloween costume stalwart.  FANTASTIC MR. FOX had hinted at the beginning of a second phase of Anderson’s career, but MOONRISE KINGDOM confirmed it– having learned from his failures, the creatively re-inspired Anderson had entered a new act marked by a desire to experiment visually while staying true to his sensibilities.

MOONRISE KINGDOM is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via the Criterion Collection.


Produced by: Wes Anderson, Jeremy Dawson, Steven Rales, Scott Rudin

Written by: Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola

Director of Photography: Robert Yeoman

Production Designer: Adam Stockhausen

Edited by: Andrew Weisblum

Music by: Alexandre Desplat