Moonrise Kingdom is the latest film from director Wes Anderson (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Fantastic Mr. Fox) who leads a star-studded cast including Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Jason Schwartzman, Bob Balaban, and in a nice cameo role, Harvey Keitel. The story centers around two 12-year-olds – played by Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward – who regard themselves as misfits, but find kinship and a budding romance with each other on the island of New Penzance.
It’s the summer of 1965 on the island of New Penzance, and in just three days time a storm will come that will ravage the small island community. In the meantime, Scoutmaster Ward (Norton) is busy keeping order in his Khaki Scouts ranks, when he discovers that 12-year-old scout Sam Shakusky has “flew the coop”, running off to rendezvous with his love interest Suzy. The two of them have decided to run away together, forging a new life for themselves on the island. The duo met the previous year, and have maintained a rigorous pen-pal relationship every since, finding in each other a kindred spirit understanding of the other’s frequently troubled escapades. Sam is an orphan living in an all-boys home, while Suzy tries to understand her outsider tendencies while ruing her mother’s (McDormand) affair with the island police chief (Willis) and growing distance from her aloof father (Murray).
When news gets out that the duo have run off, all parties venture out to find them at once. Scoutmaster Ward must continually remind his Khaki Scouts that this is a “non-violent” search-and-rescue mission, while the island historian (Balaban) is pretty sure that the two are simply retracing the historic migration route of the Chickchaw Indians. Suzy’s parents are trying to figure out how this could have happened, while Scoutmaster Ward and the police chief try to figure out how to keep young Sam out of the evil clutches of Social Services (Swinton) once he is found. Oh, and that storm that’s brewing? Yeah, that’s probably a metaphor (as well as an actual storm).
The nice thing about this film is that it treats the non-adult characters as adults, as equals. And in fact, the film is anchored from their viewpoint. While the trials and adventures of both the young lovers and the scout troops might seem quirky or be easily dismissed (as they often are) by the adults, they are very real and grave to those young lovers and scout troops. They’re dealing with broken home lives, they’re discovering love and acceptance, and they’re occasionally thinking very seriously – over by the trampoline – about their decision to get married. And in fact, it would be easy to make this exact same story a brooding melodrama; I can only imagine that a Scandinavian director has this in the works even as we speak. But instead, Wes Anderson focuses on their un-jaded honesty and dreams, still with a twinge of wide-eyed wonder, and in return rewards them with an adventure.
The audience, however, is rewarded with comedic gold. Often it’s of the dry, understated variety; but many times its off-kilter absurdity is just as likely to wrench from the viewer a spontaneous, projectile laugh. Aiding this is the relatively low blood pressure that the film maintains, where, even underneath some obvious failings, basically all of its characters are good people, who eventually try to do the right thing (although it takes Social Services a bit longer than the rest). There’s a genuine warmth that permeates the story, and indeed helps lighten the mood when a scout gets stabbed in the lower lumbar with lefty scissors.
Most of us are getting older by the day (some faster than others), but I bet if we dig real deep we can find an aspect of Moonrise Kingdom that still speaks to our inner 12-year-old. Where we still want to live on an island; to walk out the door one day and begin an adventure in the woods; to start life anew by the edge of an island inlet with our first love; to find family. Or maybe that’s just me. But I like this movie more and more each time I watch it.
Video / Audio
The video is warm and inviting. Its large grain structure and slightly yellowed tonal range feel like an aged postcard from summer camp, and perfectly match the setting and feel of the story. As usual, Anderson’s obsessive set and wardrobe direction yield a visual delight with exquisitely framed shots that are never short on color. Detail is very good, although given the style of the film and the film stock used, the look is meant to evoke a mood and time period more than be a razor-sharp demo. But the look and transfer match the film itself perfectly.
The Blu-ray contains a surprisingly active DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. The island comes alive with background and nature sounds, with the surround speakers getting frequent use. It’s never showy, but makes for an audible treat with expertly integrated environment texture. And then there are scenes where all the audio becomes quite active, especially during the flood and storm scenes. Dialogue is perfectly balanced throughout and there are no dropouts or anomalies to report. In short, this is simply a fantastic audio track, and a surprisingly rich one at that, compared to other genre examples.
Bad news, fellow Khaki Scouts. There are a pitiful lack of extras included. No commentary track, no real behind-the-scenes feature, no deleted scenes or outtakes. Just a few short bits to justify an Extras entry on the main menu. “A Look Inside Moonrise Kingdom” (HD, 3:07) is an all-too-brief, electronic press kit-style montage of clips and sound-byte interviews, which could have been the start of something interesting. “Welcome to the Island of New Penzance” (HD, 6:11) is actually quite enjoyable, with Bob Balaban reprising his role from the movie as local guide/historian of the island, and introducing us to some of the actors in the film. “Set Tour with Bill Murray” (HD, 3:09) is good while it lasts, with Murray offering a few very random thoughts from the set of the film while enjoying some rum (it’s a spiced rum; Sailor Jerry’s…).
Moonrise Kingdom is at every turn a charming movie, and those who are already mind-melded with Anderson will find it particularly humorous (when I saw it in the theater, the crowd was never short on laughter). It’s elaborately designed and slyly understated in its tone, neither of which are new to Anderson. But it’s the genuine feel-good warmth of the picture that wins the day. Although packed with big stars, they all dutifully yield to the newcomer leads and let the very troubled child and her trained field mate work out their young love story in grand style. I give it a ‘commendable.’ Mainly because it contains one of the best pitch camp sites I’ve ever seen.