Friday, June 15, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom: Casts a gentle glow

Moonrise Kingdom (2012) • View trailer
3.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, and needlessly, for fleeting profanity
By Derrick Bang

All kids — particularly those who read books — dream of having adventures in faraway lands, ideally with exotic companions. Adults rarely figure into such fantasies, except as vague background entities, and the imagined adventures generally exist in a heightened reality that might look familiar, but isn’t quite our workaday world.

Having ditched the adults in their lives, Suzy (Kara Hayward) and
Sam (Jared Gilman) ponder a map of tiny New Penzance island, to
work out the best route to a sheltered cove that will become their
runaway home from home. Sam, you'll notice, is properly equipped
for a long hike. Suzy ... not so much.
We grow up, we get “serious” — not always a good thing — and cast aside such childhood reveries.

Clearly, filmmaker Wes Anderson escaped that fate and remains firmly in touch with his inner child. Moonrise Kingdom offers ample proof: It’s a droll, stylized, kid-oriented fable about misfits, underdogs and blossoming young love. By turns adorable and unapologetically weird, this film nonetheless charms from beginning to end.

That’s not always the case with Anderson’s eclectic oeuvre. Every engaging hit (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums) has been followed by self-indulgent junk that verges on the unwatchable (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Darjeeling Limited). That’s an occupational hazard for a filmmaker so clearly obsessed with exaggerated characters who play out their anxieties in tightly enclosed little worlds that can tilt far left of center.

Greet a neighbor cheerfully on an average morning; if he regards you gravely and replies, a propos of nothing, that the howling wolves kept him awake last night — and the nearest wolf is hundreds of miles away — then you’re dealing with a Wes Anderson character.

Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) and Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman), both 12 years old, live on New Penzance, a tiny island off the coast of New England. The year is 1965, as an on-camera narrator (Bob Balaban) meticulously informs us, and we’re a few days away from a cataclysmic storm that will wreak havoc along the entire coast.

Although precociously intelligent and a gifted camper and woodsman, Sam — an orphan — is dismissed as an outcast, constantly humiliated by the other kids in his foster home. Even as a Khaki Scout, in an element where he should shine, Sam is taunted by his young peers.

Scoutmaster Ward (Edward Norton) clearly has a soft spot for Sam, but that’s not enough to prevent the boy from feeling isolated and deeply lonely.

Suzy shares a house with three little brothers and two constantly distracted parents — Laura (Frances McDormand) and Walt (Bill Murray) — who haven’t the faintest idea how to cope with their rather weird daughter. Suzy often examines the world through binoculars, pretending that this amplified view of things is a “super power” akin to the magical talents possessed by the young protagonists in her beloved library books.

Suzy’s eyes always are raccooned by dark makeup; her favorite outfit — pink dress, knee-high white socks and saddle shoes — feels like a throwback to some gentler era. Nobody understands her, which can lead to severe fits of temper.

Nobody, that is, except Sam. From the moment their eyes locked, during a church pageant a year earlier, their bond has been indestructible ... and concealed from everybody else. Having made plans during months of letters sent back and forth, the moment finally comes: Sam and Suzy flee their respective, constricting environments, meet at a prearranged spot and then hike inland.

Sam, ever the diligent scout, is properly outfitted for such an excursion. Suzy hauls along a battery-powered phonograph, a suitcase filled with her favorite library books and cat food, and her pet kitten. It’s that kind of story.

(Suzy’s books, which she reads aloud to Sam more than once, are fictitious fantasy titles, complete with commissioned cover artwork. Indeed, Anderson went one step further and developed half a dozen animated shorts — adapted from the stories in these never-were books — as supplements to this film. They’re introduced by Balaban, in the guise of the New Penzance librarian, and they can be viewed here.)

Their destination: a spot on a map designated by the technical name of “Mile 3.25 Tidal Inlet,” actually a sheltered cove that becomes a secret, magical place.

Naturally, the adults left behind become apoplectic ... well, most of them. Sam’s foster parents don’t want him back, which baffles Capt. Sharp (Bruce Willis), the island’s sole law enforcement officer. How can anybody abandon a kid?

Scoutmaster Ward can’t help admiring the visible signs of Sam’s resourcefulness, while Walt and Laura — both are attorneys — descend into agitated legalese.

Worse yet, Sam’s inflexible foster parents have alerted the authorities, in the form of a brusque matron known only as Social Services (Tilda Swinton). She’s en route to the island, intending to place Sam in a bleak, Dickensian institution.

But nobody gets upset in the usual sense; all dialogue exchanges in this film — happy, sad, fearful, loving — are delivered solemnly, the performers never cracking the faintest trace of a smile. The customary reaction to anything is a bemused frown. At times, this affectation is quite funny; at other times, we can’t help wondering if somebody spiked everybody’s lunch beverages with Quaaludes.

That’s the Wes Anderson style: stoicism exaggerated for comic effect. Fortunately, it mostly fits this stylized fairy tale, because we must remember to experience everything through the romantic eyes of 12-year-old Sam and Suzy. Yes, this story is a fragile concoction, where occasional missteps haul us out of the atmospheric mood; happily, Anderson doesn’t stumble often.

I was reminded, at times, of John Sayles’ equally delicate 1994 film, The Secret of Roan Inish, which concerned an impressionable 10-year-old girl’s experiences while living with her grandparents in a small fishing village along the Irish coast. Moonrise Kingdom has a similarly beguiling tone; even at its most outrageous — a stray lightning strike comes to mind — we can’t help being enchanted.

Anderson’s striking visual approach helps a lot, as well. Our introductory glimpse of Suzy’s home feels like a leisurely tour of a child’s dollhouse, as viewed from the exposed front side. Cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman’s camera slowly trundles left, right, up and down: amazingly, without editing cuts, much the way Peter Greenaway’s camera slid back and forth along an impossibly long set in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover.

The Khaki Scout campground is impeccably neat, every boy assigned a duty he carries out to perfection. Sam and Suzy, on the move toward their inlet destination, walk through a soft-lensed wonderland of rolling fields, craggy ravines and bucolic woodlands.

At other times, though, Anderson resorts to miniature sets reminiscent of the painstaking tableaus he created for his delightful 2009 animated film, The Fantastic Mr. Fox. Most films would feel disorienting, with such a blend of live action and obvious model work ... but, somehow, the disparity isn’t bothersome here.

Atmosphere and overly mannered acting styles aside, we’re mostly entranced by young Hayward and Gilman. Both are newcomers making impressive debuts here, and our hearts are with them every step of the way. Young love always feels magical anyway; the affectations raging throughout this film never feel peculiar when we’re focused on Sam and Suzy.

Not far into the first act, we desperately want these two kids to successfully escape to ... wherever ... even though real-world concerns (yes, even in this bizarrely cheeky setting) would seem to make that impossible.

Moonrise Kingdom isn’t for all tastes; it’s slow, embroidered to the point of lunacy, and probably “funny” only in a mildly unsettling sense. But Anderson’s film nonetheless possesses an enchanting sense of wonder, and it satisfies my personal definition of a successful film: I’d happily watch it again.

No comments:

Post a Comment