Since at least Rushmore, Wes Anderson has not made movies so much as storybooks in motion, and Moonrise Kingdom may be his purest storybook yet. The movie teems with characters yet is modestly scaled; like Anderson’s previous film, Fantastic Mr. Fox, it doesn’t employ the super-wide compositions that had been Anderson’s trademark. It looks boxier, homier, warmer. Everything is at a slight, sly remove, indicating that this isn’t serious business — it’s storytime, nobody’s in real danger, and things will end as they should. Anderson and co-writer Roman Coppola construct a story about true love, and because that love is between two 12-year-olds, it’s not complicated, which it usually is in Anderson’s films — it’s innocent, optimistic, almost anarchic. These kids aren’t tragic lovers, though; we feel that they’re in benevolent hands.
Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) ditches his Khaki Scout troop to be with Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward), who likewise runs away from home. They meet in a field and take off for the woods, pursued by various worried adults: policeman Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), who keeps the order on the island of New Penzance; Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton); and Suzy’s parents, Walt and Linda (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand). There is some complicated love here: Captain Sharp and Linda are uneasily ending an affair. But they don’t see themselves in Sam and Suzy, which is a relief — Anderson isn’t that obvious. The adults just want the kids to be safe back home — although Sam, an orphan whose most recent foster family has decided not to invite him back, doesn’t really have a home.
Sam and Suzy are described as “disturbed children,” though they may simply be responding to their environments. Suzy’s parents are troubled (and she has three brothers to contend with); Sam’s parents are dead. Moonrise Kingdom is set in 1965, when the generation impacted by Dr. Spock had kids of their own and sought to understand them via pop psychology. As the movie presents it, though, it’s simple: Sam and Suzy are unhappy alone and happy with each other. They sit in a tent while Suzy reads aloud from various storybooks; they dance on a beach and have their first kiss. Their journey is quietly idyllic, and the young actors play the kids deadpan enough that they’re never insufferable. Anderson never oversells the beauty; his regular cinematographer Robert Yeoman provides his usual immaculate symmetrical compositions, with characters always framed dead center, surrounded by the retro tackiness of the mid-’60s.
Moonrise Kingdom works up to an apocalypse of sorts — a hurricane approaching New Penzance. Its arrival coincides with that of a lady from Social Services (Tilda Swinton), amusingly named only Social Services, who wants to put Sam in an orphanage. Social Services is this storybook’s villain, worshiping rules and bureaucracy, ready to ruin Sam’s life without even having met him. Swinton is in let’s-have-fun mode here, and the others in the cast — especially Willis and Norton — seem relieved to be a part of something with some substance, something childlike but not childish. Like Spike Jonze’ Where the Wild Things Are, the film is about kids but is not really a kids’ movie.
In the summer of big, expensive superhero flicks, Moonrise Kingdom evokes awe, wonder and the magic of escapism in a much smaller and more precious way. It does Wes Anderson good to get outside: filming around Narragansett Bay, he inhales some fresh air and gets out of the rectangular confines of his past work. If Anderson’s films have been about anything, it’s the importance of breaking out of damaging routines: unhappy adults come to a crossroads and decide a change is needed. Here, in the first scenes, we see what it might be like to grow up inside a Wes Anderson film. Like their earlier adult counterparts, the kids grow to embrace mess, feeling, life outside the manicured interiors. They also have their whole lives ahead of them, which makes this Anderson’s most honestly hopeful work yet.