Citing ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’ as somewhat of a depature for Anderson away from his signature ‘twee’ aesthetic has become a common misjudgement in the years since its release, insofar that the assertion only recognises the director’s displacement of live-action figures for the presence of miniature toy models. There still exists within its narrative the trademark motifs of familial estrangement; a role for Bill Murray, naturally; and a quick-witted script clearly indebted far more to Anderson himself than Roald Dahl. Still, it was something different, finally, from the man who had previously served up four offerings that many argued were beginning to taste awfully similar. With the arrival of ‘Moonrise Kingdom’ at the opening night of the 65th Cannes Film Festival, it would have been safe to presume that with a return to live-action, Wes was back to his old tricks. A mixed reaction followed its premiere, with some charmed by its delightful coming-of-age tale, while others were back to being jaded by the increasingly stale visual style that they had come to expect.
The deceptive thing about ‘Moonrise Kingdom’ is that although it is seemingly set back in our world, complete with recognisable human faces among recognisable celebrity faces (hello, Mr. Murray), it still shares more in common with the film that preceded it than any other of the films in Anderson’s back catalogue. In the opening scenes we are eased back into live-action through a panorama of the house that belongs to Walt and Laura Bishop, the parents of the girl who leaves home, in several tracking shots that create a sense of a doll house being displayed before us, each room constructed at a time and from a myriad of perspectives. From this environment we are taken to the camp of the Khaki Scouts, a group of militant young boys led by an overzealous Ed Norton. Both settings that establish the film’s premise and introduce us to the two alienated youths that inhabit them are awash with vibrant pastel-colours of browns, yellows and light greens. The cartooniness of the world is unmistakable, and events proceed from there it becomes clear that this is a world alien to ours, even one that easily could have been borrowed from a Roald Dahl book and far beyond anything that The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou even dare attempt.
The two leads – Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman as Suzy Bishop and Sam Shakusky, respectively – carry the film on their back amicably with their inherently precocious musings on literature, art and kissing. More entertaining is the rest of the Khaki Boys troupe, doggedly determined in their pursuit of the two young lovers. In one amusing scene strangely reminiscent of Inglourious Basterds, the scout troup tracks down the pair in the forest, each of them brandishing their individual weapons, all of them sharp. If the sight of children wielding axes and firing arrows into each other’s waists sounds horrifying, it shouldn’t. It’s precisely because of the hyperstylised, cartoonish world that Anderson has established that gives justification for these characters to do as they please, to act out of societally established norms. It is this playfulness that therefore puts ‘Moonrise Kingdom’ more in line with ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’ than say, ‘The Darjeeling Limited’; the latter shares aesthetic pointers such as quick-whip pans and slow dollies that each end in a visual puncline; precise snapshots of individual actions; the delectable symmetry of Anderson’s mise-en-scene. However, ‘Darjeeling’ has that real world feel, being based in India, to lend it an emotional pathos that grounds it in the real. Conversely, ‘Moonrise Kingdom’ almost coasts on its style and charm alone, the two interwoven.
For a good while, this does the trick just fine until the whole thing unravels in the final third. When cameos from more and more adults begin to clutter the frame and the screentime, they prove a distraction to what was a justifiably generous focus on the Suzy, Sam and their child pursuers. Harvey Keitel, Tilda Swinton, Jason Schwartzmann and more join an already stacked cast of big names that leads up to a collision inside a church that can only be described as a cacophony of shouting. Once the rain, the thunder and the fireballs begin to explode over Anderson’s once idyllic playground it becomes clear that the volume has been turned up, and the precision with which this filmmaker glides over his subjects has been sped up to a frantic zigzag, extinguishing much of the sincerity that had hitherto been generated.
‘Moonrise Kingdom’ could likely be remembered as a serviceable misstep, a footnote in the director’s catalogue. One has to wonder where he goes from here. Having already cultivated quite the following with a series of superb films in the 2000s, it appears the time has come for his style to evolve before it becomes a parody of itself. With ‘Moonrise Kingdom’, Anderson has kept within the fantasy realm that made ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’ so successful, fusing two aspects of his ouevre to varying degrees of success. The question to ask now is: will he take a step backwards or further indulge himself in the fantastical and absurd?