I can't say where this ranks in writer-director Wes Anderson's filmography, but I can certainly say that Moonrise Kingdom is one of the best movies of the year, if not the best comedy of 2012.
Besides assembling a great cast, led by Bruce Willis and Edward Norton, Anderson makes great use of his child actors in a year that saw quite a few standout child performances. See Beasts of the Southern Wild, Life of Pi, Looper, LUV, The Kid with a Bike, Le Havre, The Odd Life of Timothy Green and The Hunger Games.
What shines the most is Anderson's style. It's clear that Anderson is a comedian. He's separated from someone like Woody Allen in that Anderson doesn't bombard the audience with a screenplay full of one-liners. There are some great lines in the script, co-penned by Roman Coppola, but Anderson allows the humor to be made more with carefully-constructed production design, cinematography and editing.
He wants you to see the
comedy and not in a Judd Apatow or Farrelly Brothers way that's
slapstick or toilet humor. I hate to say that Anderson is more
sophisticated because it makes him sound snobbish, but Anderson is more
sophisticated and he uses film language more to tell his jokes, and he
does so brilliantly.
Jared Gilman plays Sam Shakusky, a prepubescent child, perhaps 12-years-old, maybe 13, who is a boy scout at Camp Ivanhoe, which is situated on the fictional island of New Penzance, somewhere in the northeast. An island historian and narrator, played by Bob Balaban, tells us it's 1965 in what amounts to a tour of New Penzance. Edward Norton plays Randy Ward, the Scout Master who leads Camp Ivanhoe. The scouts are referred to as khaki scouts or as Troop 55. During his routine walk-through and check on the boys, Ward discovers that Sam Shakusky has gone missing.
Kara Hayward plays Suzy Bishop, a young girl around Sam's age who lives on Summer's End on the opposite side of the island from where Camp Ivanhoe is. She lives in an over-sized dollhouse, as depicted by Anderson, with her parents who are lawyers, Mr. and Mrs. Bishop, or Walt and Laura Bishop, played respectively by Bill Murray and Frances McDormand. Suzy also lives with her various, younger siblings. They don't realize it right away, but the Bishop family members come to know that Suzy has also gone missing.
Bruce Willis plays Captain Sharp, the head of the island's police force whose job it is to find these two children and bring them home. What Sharp learns is that while Suzy has her dollhouse, Sam doesn't really have a home to which he can go back. Sharp as well as Scout Master Ward are shocked to learn that Sam is an orphan and that his foster parents want nothing more to do with him.
How this has shaped Sam and what it drives him to do are the basis of this film. The looming threat comes from a woman who works for Social Services, played by Tilda Swinton. She wants to throw Sam into an orphanage and possibly subject him to electroshock. Whether or not that will be Sam's fate is the question. In between, Anderson manages to inject a fun and sweet, children's adventure that is as colorful and magical and silly as it is serious and even dangerous. Blood is spilled and even suicide is suggested. How Anderson weaves that here and balances it just right is the stuff of his grand ability as a filmmaker and storyteller.
Everything here works. The use of music, including the score by Alexandre Desplat, is delightful. The costumes and the art direction are superb. The way Anderson moves his camera is near perfect. He begins by gliding left-to-right, right-to-left and back-to-forward through the dollhouse. I keep referring to where the Bishops live as a dollhouse because that's how Anderson makes it feel, particularly how he uses his camera to show it to us and the particular angles that he chooses, which comes from a perspective of peering into the frame of a life-size dollhouse.
Anderson uses his camera to tell jokes. Anderson makes us laugh with nothing more complicated than a zoom-out. There is a joke involving Edward Norton sitting at a picnic table. It's an image we see of Norton at the beginning of the film and at the end. The first time is the setup and the second-time is the punch line. Without a line of dialogue, Anderson is able to make the joke by merely starting on close-up of Norton's face and slowly zooming out. It's brilliant.
Anderson has other tricks, which include frequent uses of pure 90, 180 or even 360-degree camera pans, the most hilarious application of split-screen I've seen used in a long while and grand stunts resulting in the use of special effects like CGI, which is not a common trick for Anderson. Yet, the filmmaker also lets room for his actors to have fun.
My kudos go to Edward Norton who kept me either laughing or smiling as
his dedicated math teacher-turned-Scout Master, which almost could have
been a character out of Wet Hot American Summer, marched forward so determined to be a good leader.
Of the actors I've already mentioned who all do great jobs, I also have to give special recognition to the young actors of Troop 55. Even though there are a lot of them that Anderson introduces. He does manage to make many of them distinct. One in particular is Redford, played by Lucas Hedges. Redford is essentially Sam's nemesis, but I have to admit that I really loved the young actor's performance.
Five Stars out of Five.
Rated PG-13 for sexual content and smoking.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 33 mins.