This darling film about first love between a young girl and boy is a short step from director Wes Anderson’s wonderful animation film The Fantastic Mr. Fox—not so much in theme as in storytelling technique. Mr. Fox was about adults, the eponymous hero, his irrepressible yen for stealing chickens, and the impact of his risk-taking behavior on his wife and children.
Moonrise Kingdom, on the other hand, is about the children of hapless adults who haven’t grown into their parenthood. Sam (Jared Gilman) is hovering in the foster care system, and Suzy (Kara Hayward) and her little brothers live with parents who communicate through a megaphone (mom Laura, played by Frances McDormand)and a chainsaw (dad Walt, played by Bill Murray). So Sam and Suzy run away to the local island, where she spins 45s on her portable record player and he paints her portrait as an odalisque in panties and barely necessary brassiere.
Despite the difference in thematic perspective, though, Moonrise has some of the cartoonish character of Mr. Fox. Suzy’s home is filmed like a dollhouse, each family member on view in his or her separate cubby, conscious or not of the walls between them. Character is developed through clipped dialogue and visual clues, actual props: the aforementioned record player, paint set, megaphone, and chainsaw, as well as the pearl brooch Sam wears on his camp scout uniform to remind him of his mother and the fishhook earrings Suzy wears as a badge of loyalty to Sam and their adventure (as well as the bloody sign of her emergence into womanhood). Method acting here, as in all of Anderson’s films, is thankfully eschewed. As is realism: these two precocious children elope with the unlikeliest of provisions, including a kitten and a suitcase full of cat food and books for young adults. They have Sam’s scouting skills and their mutual trust and determination, though, and that’s what it takes in this film to make a home.
Anderson is fascinated with boy-men in groups, at school, at camp, and within the family. Moonrise refers often to this fascination, in the music by Benjamin Britten, composer of Billy Budd, and in the dynamics of the scouting world from which Sam decamps. What is more, when the scouts find the runaways, they spend an idyllic evening with them in their moonrise kingdom, or rather Neverland, where Suzy reads them stories a la Wendybird to her lost boys.
The children are returned to the “real” world, but their adventure does not end unhappily. Laura and Walt don’t separate Sam and Suzy; life will do that in time.
What a cast! In addition to the magical McDormand and Murray, the film boasts Bruce Willis as the simpatico sheriff and Edward Norton as the deeply sincere camp leader.