Moonrise Kingdom Movie Review

Featuring: Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward, Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Harvey Keitel, Tilda Swinton
Director: Wes Anderson
Writers: Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola
Australian release date: Thursday 30th August, 2012
Review 1: rolanstein
Review 2: Karen

It’s the summer of 1965. A small island called New Penzance, off the New England coast. Moody 12 year old Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward), the eldest of 4 siblings and the only girl, distances herself from the rest of the family, spending her time reading or peering out into the distance through a set of binoculars from the faux-lighthouse roof of the gracious old family home.

In another part of the island, orphaned, nerdish, multi-badged but shunned Boy Scout Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) escapes from camp with a tent and load of provisions. Khaki Scout troop leader Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton) rallies his scouts and they set out to track Sam down, the former out of a duty of care, the latter secretly armed with weapons and thrilled to be able to utilise their scouting skills to hunt down a human prey.

Sam has a method to his madness. He and Suzy rendezvous in a field of corn (aw gee…), having met and fallen in love at a school pageant a year earlier, and kept up a correspondence by letter ever since.

Of course, their childish romantic plans are doomed in a world run by adults. An alert goes out that the two are missing and local sheriff Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) oversees a mission to track down the young lovers. The search takes on an increasing urgency as news comes through of a massive storm front approaching…

Review 1: (rolanstein)
This begins promisingly, as the camera wends its way through the Bishops’ fabulous old house. It’s one of those big rambling houses with a lovely welcoming lived-in feel about it, and a sense of marvel and mystery that is the province of childhood. Where does that room lead to? Oh! And this one?

The rooms are huge and naturally well-lit, with big windows opening out on to a spectacular view over the island. Persian rugs on wooden board floors, colourful paintings on walls, sepia tones offsetting primary colours.

In one of the rooms, the three boys of the family sit entranced, listening to a record introducing the instruments of the orchestra. Suzy is by herself in another room, reading (or is she doing her binoculars thing – I forget). The parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) are vaguely dishevelled and a tad eccentric in appearance, and their presence, too, is vague. They are there, but out of the way. This is a perfect kids’ house!

Indeed, cinematically, the whole film has a child-like feel about it, almost cartoonish at times. The post office looks like a model from a toy set, with “US Post” plastered over it in big letters – and again, primary colours everywhere. Many of the outdoors scenes have a grainy, golden hue about them, as if some sort of sepia lens filter has been used with old film (I know nothing of the technicals – I guess these types of effects are achieved using video editing software). Whatever, it’s all very deliberate, unusual and intriguing, if somewhat obvious as a graphic device to infuse the piece with a nostalgic tone.

Elements of the narrative are cartoonish, also. When lightning strikes one of the characters, he ends up with a blackened face and sooty glasses, and that’s it. One of the boy scouts is stabbed in the side, but recovers miraculously fast from what appears to be a nasty wound. And when the protagonists fall from a church steeple in the midst of an horrendous tempest, they are grabbed in the nick of time by local sheriff Captain Sharp, who somehow manages to anchor himself while holding on to the hand of one of the dangling kids, who in turn holds on to the hand of the kid below. So, we have a daisy chain of three figures buffeted by the raging wind and rain at great height, a mere slip of a hand away from death. You don’t get to see how they are rescued. Cut, and they’re all safe and sound, with the storm abated. Hmmm.

OK, so obviously this is not realism. I can accept that. But what is it? A bit of Indiana Jones style action here, a bit of magic realism there, more than a bit of “quirky” shit (Wes Anderson branding), a sprawling, impetuous, go-anywhere narrative with too much “why not?” about it, and some very wooden and half-drawn characters played by name actors whose roles don’t amount to much more than cameo appearances (Bill McMurray, Frances McDormand, and the vastly overrated indie darling Tilda Swinton, who is referred to only as ‘Social Services’ and is attired for no good reason in a ridiculous uniform that apparently she suggested and designed herself).

The cynical amongst us might suspect that these guys were recruited to add some box office appeal.

My problems with the characters don’t stop with the cameo trio. I didn’t buy the two lead kids, and that’s serious. Suzy is way too hip. She’s fashionably alienated, a mod-in-the-making wearing extravagant blue eye makeup and short, short skirts, and her favourite singer is…wait for it…Françoise Hardy. Oh please. In 1965, on some backwater of an island, when Beatlemania has the US by the balls? I could believe the Rolling Stones as a musical marker of “independent” taste and character, but…

And how could Suzy be attracted to Sam? She’s a good-lookin’ gal. She’s cool. He’s an unpopular, nerdy, four-eyed obsessive, and just a little creepy. Come on!

Suffer the uncomfortable possibility that I’m projecting my own stereotypes – shallowness even – on to these two characters. Accept their coupledom, and I’m still left with a major problem: the way they talk! Both have these dull, world-weary vocal tones. Nothing seems to animate them.

This is surely not an acting fault – Anderson must have directed them thus. Why? An overhang from The Royal Tenenbaums? Doesn’t work to transpose adult dysfunction stylisers on to children. And how do we accept that such passionless kids should be moved to carefully plan and carry out a daring escape to a secluded Blue Lagoonish patch of the island for a week of young-love freedom?

Which brings me to another gripe. There’s a post-swimming scene in which wet-maned Suzy lies on her side on a beach in flimsy teen-bra and panties, looking not far off sultry. The camera lingers on her pubescent figure, and while it’s possibly from Sam’s POV, the argument could easily be made that the scene is sexually exploitative and inappropriate (Kara Hayward really was 12 years old when the movie was shot). How PC of me, I know. Blame pedophilia-phobia, which has left none of us with innocent eyes. I say Anderson should have been mindful of this.

Then there’s a follow-up scene in which the kids kiss for the first time. They graduate to a “French kiss” after Suzy explains the concept, which evidently leaves Sam aroused.

“It’s hard”, observes Suzy in her deadpan, joyless tone.
“Do you mind?” asks Sam, equally lifelessly.
“No, I like it”, responds Suzy grimly, before inviting Sam to cup her budding breasts. He mournfully accepts.

While I’m certain that no harm was done to animals and humans during the making of this film, and that young Jared, in particular, would have greatly appreciated this crash course in the side-benefits of the thespian art, I can’t help but wonder – is this responsible filmmaking? I’ll leave that question hanging because I can’t decide on the answer.

I’m not ambivalent in my assessment of the film, however. The promise of its opening scenes soon evaporated. For all the attempts to summon nostalgia and create an enchanting and wistful movie about innocent young love that had as much chance of surviving as the fading summer of its bloom, it left me cold. I didn’t care about the characters. I thought the story sucked. I wasn’t impressed with the performances generally, Bruce Willis and Edward Norton excepted. And I found the comedic elements silly rather than funny (although some of the audience obliged with exhibitionistic merriment on cue). Worse, I realised about a third of the way through that I was bored. If I’d been watching on TV, I would have switched channels or turned off.

I have to admit, I’m not a Wes Anderson fan, so factor that in. I found Bottle Rocket unbearably weak, The Royal Tenenbaums irritating and tedious. Moonrise Kingdom is the only other of his movies I’ve seen (and I hadn’t remembered who he was or what he’d made at the time of viewing, so can honestly claim that no bias was operating). I won’t be rushing off to witness his next effort. Some folk you just don’t connect with.

Review 2: (Karen)
Charming and quirky are the two words that come to mind for this film, and I might have stuck with that summation had not a sense of unease pervaded my thoughts as I watched and then reflected.

Wes Anderson brings considerable skills and a well-defined aesthetic to the realisation of Moonrise Kingdom. He opens with a musical metaphor for the collaborative effort of film-making – a child plays a record that describes theme and variations played out by the different instruments and sections of an orchestra – and finishes with similar audio, this time about the individual instruments, over the end credits.

I wish I’d been quick enough to observe which technicians were being credited when a visual artefact (coloured dots) accompanied the stereo soundbite (dok-a-dok-a-dok-dok, right and left) for woodblocks. This level of playful detail informs the whole film, and it’s fun to watch. Exposition? Why waste time? Let’s have a charming character (bearing a passing resemblance to Santa Claus) speak straight to camera! Need to hear both sides of a phone conversation? Let’s use a kitsch split-screen device and get that info out there! All good stuff.

So why my unease? Well, at the heart of it is a sense that the visual aesthetic and style – all that charm and quirk – is not a match for the story. On the face of it there’s no problem. A “troubled” girl, Suzy (Kara Hayward), from an eccentric family meets an orphaned boy, Sam (Jared Gilman), and they run off together and get married. They’re only twelve years old, so the marriage doesn’t quite stick, but after they are tracked down by the combined forces of scout troops, family, police and social services, there’s a happy ending for (nearly) all.

But behind the face, there’s disorder, tragedy and plain old bad practice. Suzy is motivated to run away from home by a combination of factors: she’s a disturbed child who acts out at school; she has odious little brothers; she hates her mother Laura (Frances McDormand) – whose crime of infidelity appears to involve only sneaking off for the odd furtive shared cigarette with the lonely-guy local cop; and she devours romantic adventure fiction.

Sam is bullied at his scout camp and has a background of abuse by older boys (all hilariously decked out like James Dean lookalikes) at various orphanages; when his foster parents discover he has done a bunk, they abandon him under the pretence that it will be best for all concerned. Scoutmaster Ward (Ed Norton) smokes as he goes about his duties, and mindlessly repeats behaviours that model and foster bullying. All very quirky; not charming at all.

So the beautifully rendered scenes of the 1960s seem to have an utterly misplaced nostalgia, and the cartoon- or pantomime-like quality of the action (such as scouts armed with makeshift maces and spears) and eccentric details like Suzy’s lefty scissors are tonally at odds with the facts of the narrative: the scouts are actually aiming to kill Sam when they find him, and Suzy coolly stabs one of them with those lefty scissors.

All this might still have been okay if I’d been able to connect with any of the characters emotionally, but the acting style precludes that. Three times it looked like the hero might die. Meh. The talents of the cast (including Bill Murray, Bruce Willis and Tilda Swinton as well as those previously mentioned) are not at all stretched in their one-dimensional roles. And the idea that is really charming in this story, and that is depicted with some visual flair – the ideal of pure and innocent love between soul mates in a natural environment – is devalued by a performance style for which the director alone must take responsibility.

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2 thoughts on “Moonrise Kingdom Movie Review”

  1. Good grief! I haven’t read any other reviews or information about the film, and had no idea Kara Hayward was actually twelve years old when it was made. Your point is well made.
    It seems we’re in broad agreement here. I pretty much agree with everything you said, and as usual you have said it well.

  2. Yeah, according to the production notes, both the kids were really 12 yo when the film was shot.

    Needless to say, I found myself nodding in agreement as I read through your review, too.

    Beats me how come Wes Anderson is so acclaimed critically, including this gobbler of a flick. Seems the guy is a protected species among critics. Just came across one like-minded reviewer, though, when I typed ‘Moonrise Kingdom crap’ into Google: FUCK Moonrise Kingdom. And this guy is an Anderson fan. Quite a funny piece, I thought. You can just feel his pain!


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