Wes Anderson's wonderful new movie, "Moonrise Kingdom," opens with a scene in which three young boys are listening to a recording of Benjamin Britten's instructional 1946 composition "The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, Op. 34," in which a child narrator helpfully discusses the composer's embrace of "variations, which means different ways of playing the same tune ... or theme."
This is Anderson's way of asserting that the recurring ideas and storytelling and visual strategies in his films are evidence of artistic intent, not a poverty of ideas. He can't shed his obsessions any more than the film's fox terrier, Snoopy, can shed his wiry coat.
Set on an island off the coast of New England in the summer of 1965, two twelve-year-olds fall in love, make a secret pact, and ...
Rating: PG-13 for sexual content and smoking
Length: 93 minutes
Released: May 25, 2012 Limited
Cast: Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Jason Schwartzman
Director: Wes Anderson
Writer: Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola
Those who have seen Anderson's previous features — "Bottle Rocket," "Rushmore," "The Royal Tenenbaums," "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou," "The Darjeeling Limited" and the stop-motion "The Fantastic Mr. Fox" — will encounter many familiar elements in "Moonrise Kingdom." These include the straight-line tracking shots that move from left to right across the screen, as if the camera were "reading" a scene; the precocious children; the whimsical and highly artificial set design, complete with cutaway views that emphasize the idea that Anderson might be as happy constructing dollhouses as films; and the deadpan presence of Bill Murray.
Yet as the romantic and fairy-tale associations of its title suggest, "Moonrise Kingdom" also is a story of love and heroism, even if the runaway couple at the center of its eventual literal storm are even younger than Shakespeare's teen lovers, Romeo and Juliet.
The setting is 1965, on the New England island of "New Penzance," which once belonged to the "Chickchaw" Indians. (Anderson and co-writer Roman Coppola apparently love creating fictional yet likely proper names; a scouting magazine, for example, is titled "Indian Corn").
The film's name actors include Bruce Willis as a police officer, Edward Norton as a scoutmaster and Tilda Swinton as a social services agent, but the true stars are a pair of young newcomers, cast as 12-year-olds experiencing what some adults might belittle as puppy love but what they believe to be a connection that is deep and true. One of those stars is Jared Gilman, who plays a bespectacled watercolorist and "Khaki Scout" from Camp Ivanhoe named Sam Shakusky, described as an "emotionally disturbed" orphan and "the least popular scout in the troop — by a significant margin."
The other is the more physically mature Kara Hayward as the more mysterious and volatile Suzy Bishop, a girl who packs a suitcase of Young Adult fantasy novels, a portable record player and her favorite Franoise Hardy album when she runs away from home to join Sam for what the fugitives imagine might be a dream idyll in the Indian-haunted woods. (In a detail borrowed from Anderson's own childhood, Suzy also carries a book she discovered atop her parents' refrigerator: "Coping with the Very Troubled Child.")
Like the current (and far inferior) "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World," "Moonrise Kingdom" could be described as the tale of a nerd who finds romance on a cataclysmic deadline with a much cooler girl with a hip record collection. At the start of "Moonrise," a narrator (Bob Balaban) warns us that the story begins just three days before the island will be hit by a severe storm, a deluge that is foreshadowed by the local church's production of Britten's "Noye's Fludde," an opera inspired by the tale of Noah's Ark.
Judging from America's cinema, the waters of Katrina may have receded, but the warp and trauma remain. Flood and storm imagery can be found in many ambitious films, including "The Tree of Life," "Take Shelter" and the upcoming Sundance prize-winner "Beasts of the Southern Wild." Here, the barometric pressure might be accumulating in reaction to the emotions of the characters, including Suzy's distraught parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand).
Near the end of the film, we hear a chorus singing one of Britten's "Friday Afternoons" songs, "Cuckoo!" The repetition of the comic cry of the cuckoo — a cartoon and playground indicator of insanity — is humorous, but it also suggests something tragic: the unstoppable tick-tock passage of time. The secret of "Moonrise Kingdom" is that the adults who are so desperate to return Sam and Suzy to their care actually envy the children's freedom, carelessness, innocence, irresponsibility, sincerity and, yes, love: In a word, their youth.
For all its Andersonian filigree, "Moonrise Kingdom" may be the director's simplest, most direct and emotionally richest movie — a visit to a kingdom that eventually makes all of us exiles.