Straightaway you know you’re in a film by Wes Anderson. ‘Moonrise Kingdom’ opens with the camera gracefully panning sideways through the cross-section of a suburban home in 1960s New England, stopping occasionally, like a train pulling into station after station, to spy on members the family. We may as well be peering into a retro doll’s house – and we are the kids about to play with the toys inside.
But if some of Anderson’s films, especially his last live-action work, ‘The Darjeeling Limited ’, have felt too heavy on the furnishings and light on feelings, this one is so much more free, fresh and soulful. Some things are familiar: it’s droll, cultured and comic. It wears its own uniform and plays its own tunes. Yet it also benefits from a heavy dose of youthful chaos.
Maybe ‘Moonrise Kingdom’ gets its lightness from being a simple, heartwarming romance, a rousing, us-against-the-world tale of a pair of 12 year olds who arrange to meet at dawn and march into the wilderness as outlaws. He’s Sam (Jared Gilman), a terrifically serious, bespectacled young man from a foster home who disappears from Scout camp, leaving a resignation letter for the leader (Edward Norton). She’s Suzy (Kara Hayward), the fiercely independent eldest daughter of the family we’ve spied on. Her mum and dad (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) are eccentric lawyers: he walks about the house brandishing his pot belly; she uses a loudhailer to call the kids to dinner. When Sam and Suzy disappear, the entire town (and a bunch of armed Scouts) come looking.
There’s a snappy momentum to ‘Moonrise Kingdom’. Anderson strikes a smart balance between creating a rarefied world and making us feel for his adolescent heroes: a stolen kiss on the beach between the two kids is magical and romantic. This is an American story but it has an unmistakeable French flavour to it. The 1960s setting, the kids on the run and the wild plotting (a bit too wild in the final third), all give it a nouvelle vague feel. It’s an American ‘Pierrot le Fou’ refashioned in retrospect with Anna Karina and Jean-Paul Belmondo as pre-teens. It also reminded me of Richard Ayoade’s recent ‘Submarine’, while Anderson himself has spoken of the influence of Ken Loach’s ‘Kes’ and ‘Black Jack’. That reference isn’t so easy to spot – maybe it’s there in the genuine concern for these kids’ feelings and their discovery of a whole new world in nature.
This is an adult film, really, of course, with all the pleasures of seeing Bruce Willis as a soft-hearted local cop; briefly encountering Tilda Swinton as a uniformed care worker called Social Services; lapping up the ample Hank Williams on the soundtrack; and squirming at a school production of Benjamin Britten’s ‘Noye’s Fludde’. But you can imagine ‘Moonrise Kingdom’ turning young kids on to cinema; it’s so full of a joyous love for the medium and smart without being clever-clever. Its childishness, sense of innocence and eye for fun all make it a very easy film to love.