Judge Erich Asperschlager will be out back. He's going to find a tree to chop down.
"What kind of bird are you?"
In a summer dominated by comic book movies and action blockbusters, Wes Anderson stole the counter-programming show with Moonrise Kingdom, a pre-teen love story that broke indie box office records and brought many Anderson haters back into the fold. It thrived all summer long, bringing in new viewers and plenty of folks who wanted to see it again. Even the biggest movies are out of theaters after a few weeks. Moonrise Kingdom played at my local art house until early October.
Its numbers might pale in comparison to Marvel's The Avengers or The Dark Knight Rises, but Moonrise Kingdom's success is undeniable. As it was for Midnight in Paris last year, it's encouraging to see audiences react so positively to the kind of film that usually withers in the shadow of big-budget studio releases. Who knows? Wes Anderson and company might get nominated for something more prestigious than Best Animated Feature this year.
Facts of the Case
Written by Anderson and longtime collaborator Roman Coppola, Moonrise Kingdom is set on the small New England island of New Penzance, during the summer of 1965. The rural community is thrown into an uproar when local 12-year-old Suzy (Kara Hayward) and her secret boyfriend, a Khaki Scout named Sam (Jared Gilman), abscond into the woods—with Sam's scout master (Edward Norton), the island police chief (Bruce Willis), Suzy's parents (Frances McDormand and Bill Murray), and the entire Khaki Scout Troop 55 hot on their trail.
Moonrise Kingdom's success is gratifying to Wes Anderson fans, who have watched the director fall out of favor with critics and moviegoers, tired of his quirky characters and signature style. It's not hard to see why Moonrise Kingdom was a hit even among those critics. It isn't a typical Anderson film. Although it draws from the same creative well as his other movies, the director brings something new to the screen—an accessibility that comes not from dumbing down his vision, but refining it.
After The Royal Tenenbaums, Wes Anderson's movies took a dark turn. For all the gorgeous scenery in The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited, they were movies populated by sad people doing sad things that made them feel only a little bit better at the end. Fantastic Mr. Fox was more fun, but that probably had as much to do with the original children's book as Anderson's vision. Moonrise Kingdom isn't a feel-good laugh riot, but it's lifted up by the sweetness and sincerity of young love.
Of all of the smart decisions Anderson made in this film, perhaps the smartest was casting newcomers Hayward and Gilman as his teen leads. They give the finest performances in the film, not because they are the most polished actors but because they are so believable. Even when Anderson and Coppola's words make them sound wiser than their years, the young actors deliver their lines with a vulnerability that blurs the line between childhood and adolescence. Great child performances are rare. Watching these first-time film actors sell one of the best love stories in recent years is a near miracle. It doesn't matter whether Sam and Suzy spend the rest of their lives together, or just the rest of the summer. Anderson paints a charming portrait of two outsiders who find each other at the right time in their lives. Maybe one day Sam and Suzy will grow up to become Max Fischer and Margot Tenenbaum, but for now their lives are nothing but possibilities.
The major obstacles to their happiness are the island adults—well-meaning authority figures who don't understand Sam and Suzy's love. By setting the story in the mid-'60s, Anderson ties their struggle into that decade's cultural upheaval. Moonrise Kingdom pokes gentle fun at the establishment, which consists mostly of a scout master who cares too much and a bumbling rural cop. When actual threats are introduced—this is a Wes Anderson film after all—they come in more specific forms: a looming hurricane, a vindictive fellow scout, and a social service worker (Tilda Swinton) who's looking for Sam.
Moonrise Kingdom's cast is made up of regulars, newcomers, and big-name actors playing against type. Bill Murray is back, returning to the main cast after smaller roles in Darjeeling Limited and Fantastic Mr. Fox. He plays Suzy's father, the closest thing to a typical Anderson sad-sack in the movie. Suzy's mother is played by Frances McDormand, a natural fit with the director's quirky style. Edward Norton and Bruce Willis might seem like odd choices for a Wes Anderson movie, but that's probably because it's been a long time since Moonlighting. These performers, known primarily for heavy roles, show an aptitude for comedy that recalls the way Anderson showcased Bill Murray's hidden dramatic talents in Rushmore. Rounding out the film's impressive cast are Bob Balaban as the narrator, Harvey Keitel as the troop commander, and longtime Anderson trouper Jason Schwartzman as "Cousin Ben."
Moonrise Kingdom hits Blu-ray with a 1.85:1 1080p transfer that remains true to cinematographer Robert Yeoman's hazy, sun-drenched vision. The film was shot on 16mm and blown up to 35mm, giving the film a soft look. Detail is hit-or-miss, especially in wide shots, although the softness a function of the film stock and not the transfer. Those looking for a modern hi-def experience may be disappointed, but the look of the film and overall golden tinge fits the '60s setting. Whatever the perceived shortcomings, Wes Anderson is a meticulous filmmaker, and Moonrise Kingdom is a gorgeous film.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix reveals its unassuming beauty over the course of the film, with a wide range of sound cues and music. The film's score is a combination of original material written by Fantastic Mr. Fox composer Alexandre Desplat, songs by Hank Williams and Françoise Hardy, and the music of Benjamin Britten. The British composer's "Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra" does double duty in the film's opening sequence as background music and an inspired way to introduce the characters, while a flashback sequence during a performance of his 1957 opera Noye's Fludde (Noah's Flood) foreshadows the film's stormy climax. The lossless 5.1 mix lets the various musical styles play to their full strengths. This isn't a movie you'll use to show off your home theater rig, but the sound design is full of wonderful touches, with clean dialogue punctuated by subtle and immersive surround effects.
As of now, all but one of Wes Anderson's other films have been available as part of the Criterion Collection. Moonrise Kingdom isn't there yet. It begins its home video life on Blu-ray and DVD courtesy of Universal. I don't know that Criterion could have improved the picture or audio, but you can be sure they would have assembled better bonus features. I don't usually root for double-dip releases, but Moonrise Kingdom deserves better than the sorry extras included here:
• "A Look Inside Moonrise Kingdom" (3:07): This pre-release promotional featurette covers the basics in rapid-fire style.
• "Welcome to the Island of New Penzance" (6:14): Narrated by Bob Balaban in character, this collection of promos—which can be viewed individually or all together—focuses on four of the movie's major players: Bill Murray, Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, and Wes Anderson.
• "Set Tour with Bill Murray" (3:09): Not so much a tour as Murray describing the movie and talking about his fellow actors on a set.
It's hard to pinpoint the reason Moonrise Kingdom appealed to a wide audience in ways Wes Anderson's other films haven't. It's no less stylish or quirky than his previous work, but the director has found a way to leverage his attention to detail in a way that doesn't keep us at arm's length from his characters. Of course, it doesn't matter how Moonrise Kingdom stacks up with Anderson's other work. It stands alone as a poignant portrayal of young love, featuring two of the finest debut performances in many years. I'm glad it is available on home video, although this barebones Blu-ray leaves a lot to be desire. Buy it now to own a wonderful film, but keep your fingers crossed that a feature-rich Criterion release isn't too far away.
What's the Chickchaw translation for not guilty?
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Review content copyright © 2012 Erich Asperschlager; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.