When you go see a Wes Anderson film, there’s a good chance you know what you’re getting ahead of time. Anderson has a formula—one that’s idiosyncratic and often transportive, but a formula nonetheless. First, there’s the look of his movies: warm color schemes; dramatic use of slow-motion and tight zooms; rigidly symmetrical, Kubrick-on-steroids framing that treats every character like a pawn on a chess board. Then there’s everything else: the purposely stilted and bone-dry dialogue; the ’70s soundtracks; intertwining ensemble narratives that make quirky tragic heroes out of broken and depressed middle-class people.
Anderson has worked miniature miracles in the past with that exact combination, particularly on the back-to-back gems Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums. And even his slightest films (the Wilson brother buddy-comedy Bottle Rocket, the slow and zonked-out The Darjeeling Limited) had flashes of transcendence. But that formula very nearly runs out of gas with Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson’s fascinating yet slightly lacking seventh movie.
There’s a thin line between artistic trademark and creative laziness, and that line is even blurrier here. This is very likely the last straw for Anderson skeptics—all of the filmmaker’s motifs and visual staples are emphasized more than actual character development, and, at times, Moonrise Kingdom plays out like Wes Anderson for Dummies, skimming the surface of this singular auteur’s cinematic finesse, rehashing ideas and themes he’s worked out with more clarity and substance in the past.
For a while, though, the plot is charmingly and uncharacteristically simple: In 1965, on a fictional New England island named New Penzance, two nerdy, disillusioned pre-teens—orphaned Khaki Scout Sam (fabulous newcomer Jared Gilman) and bookish vacationer Suzy Bishop (the sweet-faced Kara Hayward)—fall in love and run off into the exotic wilderness. Suzy is armed with a stylish suitcase full of stolen library books, her family cat, a stash of 45s, and her younger brother’s hijacked record player. Sam, as a highly-decorated scout, maps out their journey with precision and brings along the tools and expertise necessary for survival. (Fun fact: If you’re stranded in the woods with no water in sight, try sucking on a handful of pebbles.) Their fidgety, blossoming romance is handled delicately and realistically: stargazing at their campsites, Suzy reads aloud from her books, romanticizing the adventures of her favorite fictional characters; Sam, in return, pierces Suzy’s ears with roach earrings.
They’re both outcasts. Sam is the loser of his scout troop, and even his foster parents aren’t concerned with his disappearance—in fact, they respond to the news with relief. Suzy feels isolated among her large family, heartbroken by the marital malaise of her lawyer parents (a disappointingly vacant Frances McDormand and an even drier and more-depressed-than-usual Bill Murray) and her mother’s subsequent affair with the local bachelor cop, Capt. Sharp (Bruce Willis). Their shared angst crescendos during a breathtaking beachside love scene, where the barely pubescent couple awkwardly grope and kiss. It’s as touching as it is shockingly raw, and Anderson (along with cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman) injects fragile power into what could have been cheap exploitation. It’s a scene for the time capsules.
But things get messy, both in terms of plot and substance, when the adults realize the runaways’ scheme. Scout master Ward (played with subtlety and comic grace by Edward Norton) leads the charge to find the pair, followed by his clockwork gang of very adult-like scouts. They’re joined, with varying degrees of interest, by Suzy’s parents and the stone-faced Sharp, who develops a personal attachment to the case. It all feels obvious and inevitable, and there’s no tension in the search-and-rescue subplot. In fact, Moonrise Kingdom suffers each time an adult appears onscreen. The characters offer no motivation for their actions outside of the obvious—the lonely cop and the bored wife have an affair, but we’re never given a glimpse of the reasons behind it, besides generic martial boredom. When Sharp shows affection for the orphaned Sam, we can only guess he’s looking to fill the emotional void of his failed secret romance. Ambiguity has its place in cinema, but in this case, it creates an emotional roadblock between the audience and the characters.
It’s a shame, too: Tack on an extra 20 minutes or so for character development and Moonrise Kingdom could rank among Anderson’s finest films. As it stands, it’s a beautifully flawed and overly familiar journey that should have reaped far greater rewards.