Cannes 2012 Review: MOONRISE KINGDOM Eclipses High Expectations

Jason Gorber, Featured Critic
There are only a few directors in the history of cinema that have manged to craft, even from their earliest works, a consistent, signature style.  Most fimmakers adjust in major ways project to project. Others seem content (some may claim are stuck) in a general aesthetic that shapes their works. These directors create worlds you like to visit (or tire of seeing over and over again), using formal techniques and repeating themes to give the products of these filmmakers, for better or worse, a sense of continuity.

There are those that chide Tim Burton for this very tactic, finding his schtick tired after many years. Others complain that Tati, with his M. Hulot character's fumbling, or Gilliam, with his arch production style and adoration of Fellini and Bruegel, eventually began to craft caricatures of their aesthetic, falling into the quandry of the "esque". When Burton-esque or Gilliam-esque flourishes trump the tenets of good story telling, when the fastidious camera work and elaborate production design are mere drapery atop an unstable core, then the audiences ability to simply sit back and inhabit the worlds of these films become compromised.

It may be hard for those who adore his films (and I count myself among the long term fans), but Wes Anderson's style, with its blend of the quirky with the precocious, easily fits into this camp of the "esque". Bright and colourful illustrations, a well considered soundtrack, intense yet darkly comic performances make Moonrise Kingdom, from its first shot, clearly part of Anderson's oeuvres. There's part of me that thinks a general audience will be immediately put off by the off kilter production design, the reticence of some of the dialogue, and the odd timbre of films tonality. It's different. It's almost creepy. Some may hate this film.

Those people are idiots. I shall hereby ignore them for the rest of this review.  Moonrise is an absolute delight, and I shall fight anyone that feels otherwise.

While I appreciated the convoluted insouciance of Darjeeling Limited, that film spent loads of time trying to distance itself from its audience. Moonrise is very much in line with the likes of his other, more accessible works. It has a sense of the retrograde borrowed from Life Aquatic, the broad theatricality of Rushmore, the sardonic social drama from The Royal Tenenbaums. Almost more charmingly, the film borrows a frisky playfulness from Fantastic Mr. Fox - when animal-masked characters scurry up a steeple in the closing moments, they appear almost claymation in composition.

The story, such as it is, is situated on an island off the New England coast. Bob Balaban shows up as some mad David Attenborough, a figure in fingerless gloves and a bright red jacket telling us in chorus-like fashion about the events that are about to transpire, a storm (both physical and metaphorical) heading to this isolated spot. We then meet the Bishop family, living in yet another preposterous locale. In a series of sweeping vignettes that echo the introduction to the boat in Aquatic, we travel in linear tracking shots room to room, seeing the mother, father, three young boys and an older daughter, Suzy (Kara Hayward ),  constantly peering out from on high with her binoculars.

Minutes in, and any film geek is in heaven: The gorgeously executed dolly work is manna for any fan of this type of craft. Immaculate design, down to the beautiful plastic, battery operated record player, immediately connotes a specific time and place. Frances McDormand and Bill Murray cast as the parents of these children is an inspired choice, their comportment perfect for this setting.

We soon meet the other main participants in the story, the troop of scouts camping out on the Island. When Sam (Jared Gilman) goes missing, the group of boys, led by Scout Master Ward, spread out to retrieve him. Ed Norton's turn as Ward is also quite excellent - I've found over the last several years that his choices have been less than ideal, and a misguided interview he did with Springsteen a few years back at TIFF soured me on the guy. It's nice to be reminded in this film that with the proper material and direction that Norton's an exceptional talent, and his addition to the Anderson ensemble is a welcome one.

We also meet at this stage another actor who sometimes seems to go for too many years between films that really showcase the breadth of his talent. Bruce Willis plays the local police Captain note perfectly, a man who manages to rise to the occasion, despite his unrequited affections for another. Keitel's turn is brief and unremarkable, but the insane wardrobe choice for Tilda Swinton is astonishing - never before has a bell boy style cap looked so sinister, the deep indigo material practically shimmering against the pale features of her face.

When I saw Rushmore, I was still slightly closer in age to Max Fischer than I was the school headmaster he was tormenting. I find it a bit humbling to think that I'm actually much more closely related in age to the weather-worn relationships articulated by the adults in this film, far from the than the young, hopeful, blossoming affections of the children at the heart of the story. I'm not sure what it says about me, but where I felt a kindred spirit to Fischer, I find the unblemished enthusiasm of Sam and Suzy almost archaic, where I can relate entirely to Murray's need to take axe to tree, Willis' reluctant altruism, or Norton's correction that he's a Scout Master first, that other thing he does for money isn't really who he is (Hi, my name is Jason, and I'm  a "film critic". No, really...")

Still, it's hard not to completely fall for what is yet another Andersonian fable about preposterously talented adolescents. Even at its most broad, most cartoony - lightning stikes and flash floods, Noah's Ark plays and ludicrous tree houses - it all is so clearly the product of a passion for a type of story telling that I simply fell in love with what was occurring in front of me on screen. Even the credit sequence, with its dancing, kinetic typography, speaks to both a deliberation of craft and a general playfulness of the production staff. Anderson has dropped the Futura for a whimsical script font, but his precise title design continues to impress.

Moorise Kingdom is bookended by a child's voice reciting the components that go into a symphonic voice. As he rhymes off the various instrumentation, the piccolos, the contrabass, the harp that flows into guitar, classical guitar, banjo, and then tubular bells, the work is exposing the various pieces that go into its composition. This Oldfieldian conceit may be old hat to any fan of early 70s instrumental prog, but it does something I think critically important. Anderson seems unafraid for you to take stock of the various devices he's come to be known for. He, like any critic, is articulating the exact mechanism used to craft this particular work, the elements that in isolation can be designated and codified.

What works so well in the symphonic pedagogical recording, and in Anderson's works as a whole, is that these visual ticks and gimmickry add up to something that in total is far more effective than any isolated element. The synergy that Anderson's craft is a mad kind of alchemy, one where the component parts are exposed from the opening shots. When one finds themselves whisked away, it's almost against their better nature. We abandon some elements of reason to be told a simply fair tale, we find ourselves sucked into this magic world where kids are crafty outdoorsmen and the only thing to pack is cat foot and stolen library books.

I look forward to rewatching Moonrise Kingdom, I look forward to seeing it several years from now as I grow even older. I'm still whistling some of the Hank Williams tracks you hear from the car radio. It's a film I'd like to to think I would have loved at 12, the same age as Sam, but fear it would have been way over my head. As I get older, and as I get weepier, I see myself continuing to fall in love with this work over and over again.

 Anderson has once again created a place that's warm and inviting, taking us on a journey with a few bumps and bruises along the way. Easily among the best of his works, it's a technically marvelous film with spot-on performances, a gorgeously realized score, and impeccable production design. Living up and even surpassing my extremely high expectations, Moonrise Kingdom eclipsed all of my doubts, and let me settle into this wonderful fable about young love, free from the inevitable disappointments that come with age, set on a charming little island off the coast of New England.
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