Despite the gulfs of place and plot structure, much of the DNA of newest Wes Anderson offering Moonrise Kingdom is shared with Hugo, last year’s awards heavyweight from Martin Scorsese. Both are about boys without families trying to find their way forward, both set their stories in deliberately nostalgic period settings (1930s Paris for Hugo, an 1965 New England for Moonrise), and both are at least as remarkable for their highly detailed, textured production design as for any narrative innovations.
Moonrise Kingdom is, I think, the better film of the two, not because it’s better made but because, for all its whimsy, it gets closer to the lives and troubles of its youthful protagonists than it ever occurred to Martin Scorsese to reach for. Hugo was probably the handsomest movie to emerge in 2011, but in the end it was more interested in its message of the importance of film preservation than it was about the plight of its orphaned hero; if any character in it has an emotional journey, it isn’t Hugo but Ben Kingsley’s George Melies.
Presented with deliberate, almost overcomposed photography and featuring precocious youngsters who jam out to French pop and recount their loneliness to each other, Anderson’s film is precious to a point bordering on the insufferable. I suspect that many of its indulgences, including too-sixties-for-the-sixties dialogue, impossibly high tree houses, copious amounts of eye shadow, and literal lightning strikes, will put off some critics and many moviegoers as eye-rolling constructions. I don’t quite know what I feel about those stylistic choices, except that Moonrise Kingdom would be a different movie without them and that they have very little to do with why I liked it. We like movies, or books or art or music, for many different reasons: because they do things in a new way, or because they make us feel good about things, or simply because they entertain us for some set amount of time.
And, sometimes, it is because we recognize ourselves in what we see. “I suppose I want to go on adventures,” says Suzy to Shakusky when they sit together out in the woods getting to know each other, right before she tells him that he’s ‘more interesting’ for being an orphan. Shakusky is transparently our misunderstood hero, an emotionally stunted orphan shortly to be remanded to the care of the state (in the avatar of a blue-clad Tilda Swinton, no less), but it is in Suzy that Moonrise Kingdom paints its most affecting portrait, of a childhood lost to sadness and anger that have no apparent source. In the end, I was struck by Moonrise Kingdom precisely because I saw shadows of my own childhood and adolescence in Suzy’s longing for adventure and self-alienated misanthropy.
For that reason, I don’t know that I can offer an easy recommendation, except to say that if that rings true for you as well, you’ll probably like the movie. If not, I’m less sure. But, in a season dominated by loud explosions and indistinguishable brands, Wes Anderson’s offering is, at least, something different, and may be a welcome change just for that.