I’ve always felt that Wes Anderson sees the world through the eyes of child. Events take on a surreal larger-than-life significance, characters are exaggerated, emotional interactions are somewhat simplistic, yet peppered with nuance and hidden depth. To be entirely honest, I’ve found this has a tendency to make Anderson’s adult characters difficult to relate to and his movies difficult to engage with. That’s why I think The Fantastic Mr. Fox worked so well, because it was a childish view of an adult work through the prism of a children’s story.
That’s also why, I think, Moonrise Kingdom works just as well as Anderson’s quirky foray into the world of stop motion animation. While many of Anderson’s films are tragedies about overgrown children living in the bodies of adults, Moonrise Kingdom is more keenly focused on how adults and children interact with one another – giving the movie a depth to complement Anderson’s unique stylistic vision, and heart to go with its cynical wit.
The film is set in New England towards the end of the sixties. It opens, appropriately enough, on a shot of a painting of the house in which the painting hangs. Much like that painting, Anderson’s movie isn’t designed to capture reality, but to reflect it. It’s absurd, ridiculous, impossible and yet somehow strangely almost right. The sixties were a different time, a world away from today. The events of Moonrise Kingdom are spurred on by the decision of a young boy named Sam to run away from home.
An exasperated island police officer, named Sharp, is tasked with tracking him down. Sharp has the full resources of the island at his disposal. That includes the local Khaki Scout Troop, their dog Snoopy and the island’s pilot, Jed. Of course, if a kid disappeared today, the island would be immediately swarming the police officers and sniffer dogs, if there was room left after the news reporters arrived. Sam’s foster parents are somewhat less than distraught at Sam’s decision to disappear, instead politely informing Shaw that they simply can’t welcome Sam back. He’s a good kid, but he’s troubled.
I can’t help but feel like there’s a bit of scathing commentary here about the way we treat kids in the modern world. Parents are, rightly, afraid of what the world might hold for their children – and the reflexive response is to bundle them up tight, to panic at the first hint of trouble, and to strictly regiment their behaviour. The idea being that we can tightly regulate and control them – render them predictable. When Social Services suggests using electro-convulsive therapy to adjust Sam’s behaviour, Sharp tries to argue that the kid isn’t violent, just different. Naturally, his argument is ignored – he’s outside “the norm” and must be appropriately adjusted.
The irony with this over-protective and over-regulating attitude, of course, is that parents probably have less time to spend with their kids these days, with longer working hours, longer commutes and an increase in the number of two-income households. While Sam’s foster parents seem unconcerned about his welfare – seemingly thinking, correctly, that he’ll turn up, probably after having a nice weekend to himself – things change when Suzy disappears. Suzy comes from a large family, with several brothers, a pet cat and two practicing lawyers as parents. Her mother manages the household through a loud-speaker – a fairly one-dimensional method of communication. When she talks with her husband, they’re more likely to talk about work than family.The longest conversation we see her having with Suzy is more focused around her than it is around Suzy.
For his part, Suzy’s father is somewhat defensive about his role in family life. When his wife asks if he’s concerned about their daughter’s disappearance, he responds, “That’s a leading question.” His kids seem unfazed when he wanders through the house, likely intoxicated, carrying an axe and planning to chop down a tree. They aren’t bad people, they are just over-worked and emotionally exhausted, and have no real connection to their daughter. When Suzy finds a book titled Dealing with a Troubled Child, she decides to run away – presumably because she can’t talk to her parents about it. When her mother finds it in Suzy’s bag, she only passingly references it, rather than talking about it.
And yet they are full of moral outrage when Suzy disappears. They are very quick to blame anybody else for the situation – from the Khaki Scouts to Sharp himself. “Jesus Christ,” her father gasps as he looks through a box her mother found. “What am I looking at here?”He is looking at love letters exchanged between his daughter and Sam, including tasteful artwork he’s sent her. He seems genuinely shocked at the idea that his daughter might have a stash of pre-teen love letters, something many of us might have assumed came as standard at the time. (Okay, so there was one tasteful nude, but he seemed to be reacting more to the box than any particular piece of paper.)
That is, of course, what parents do. Talking to Sam, Captain Sharp tries to explain that everybody makes mistakes, and that the role of an adult is to look out for a child. “It’s our job to stop you making any really big ones,” he tells young Sam. There’s that crippling fear that somehow we might fail those children, that despite our best intentions we might not be up to the task of looking out for kids. “We’re all they’ve got,” Suzy’s mother tells her father at one point. He solemnly responds, “It’s not enough.”
And that’s the heart of Moonrise Kingdom right there – the idea that kids are somehow stronger and smarter and more imaginative than we give them credit for. Suzy knows about her mother’s dark secret. Sam is, despite a flair for the melodramatic (like an impromptu attempt at canoe camouflage), well suited to life in the wilderness. “You’re probably smarter than me,” Sharp tells Sam. “In fact, I know it.” Yes, Sam is childish and silly and naive, but he’s also trying to find his own way in the world in a way that the adults around him simply won’t allow.
The child characters are frequently shown to be far more efficient than their adult counterparts. The Khaki Scout troops, for example, are quicker to find Sam and Suzy than any of the grown-ups. Later on, they mastermind a brilliantly orchestrated and dynamic escape, while the adults are all caught in their own melodramas. There’s something bitterly wry about Captain Sharp and the character known as “Social Services” posturing wildly while threatening to write each other up – brandishing pens and note books while kids handle scissors and croquet bats.
Of course Sam and Suzy are strange. They seem like the typical Wes Anderson protagonists, just a little emotionally numb, if exceptionally verbose. However, the detachment actually works quite well, creating the sense that they are both clumsily trying to figure out what everything means. Indeed, the first declaration of love isn’t a gigantic melodramatic moment, it’s a small clumsy verbal hick-up, when Sam unconsciously prefaces those words to a criticism.
After Suzy suggests that being an orphan makes Sam “special”, he replies, “Suzy, I love you, but you don’t know what you’re talking about.” He probably didn’t even think about the start of that sentence – it just came naturally, and it felt right. It’s a sweet Anderson-esque moment, and it seems much more appropriate coming from a kid than it does from an awkward manchild.
Anderson’s hyper-active imagination is perfectly suited to the film’s childish themes. There’s an air of the absurd about the picture, as if it were the world imagined through the limitless potential of childhood. Whether it’s the impossibly balanced tree house that forms the Khaki Scout headquarters or the running jump of a man carrying a fully-grown colleague on his back, there’s a sense that the laws of physics in Anderson’s universe are entirely malleable. This is, after all, a world where a building doesn’t just catch fire, it erupts in a display similar to fireworks, where Khaki Scout activities include riding a motorbike, and where an impromptu camp comes with all the modern amenities, including a support constructed specifically for the tent.
It’s the world viewed through the mind of child, where every parental announcement is uttered with the intensity of Law & Order dialogue (“you can’t control your own Khaki Scouts!”) and time in the Khaki Scouts is at once the equivalent of military service and a prison sentence, all rolled into one package. It’s Anderson’s way of looking at the world, and I think it’s more perfectly in tune with this material than it has been with any of the director’s live action material. (And I include the superb Rushmore in that assessment.)
It helps that Anderson has, as usual, a phenomenal cast to assist him. Everybody does a wonderful job, even those with relatively small roles, like Anderson staples Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman. Bruce Willis and Ed Norton are probably the adults with the largest roles, and both acquit themselves more than admirably. Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman both do a very good job with material that probably isn’t the easiest thing to hand a young actor. At times both seem a little too disconnected, but it’s to the credit of Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola’s superb script that it feels perfectly in character.
It’s also worth noting that Moonrise Kingdom is constructed with an obvious, if not obnoxious, love of cinema. From the decision to open it with the type of titlecard that would have been in service during the sixties through to the application of gleefully out-of-place genre conventions, Moonrise Kingdom feels like a cinephile’s delight, without getting too bogged down in knowing winks and nods. For example, we get Khaki Scouts as stereotypical soldiers-of-fortune, a troop equipment manager operating an illicit smuggling and contraband operation under the camp leader (hiding a heart of gold beneath his jerkass facade) and even an homage to The Shawshank Redemption in the opening minutes.
It never overwhelms the film, but instead adds a nice lightness of touch. We get to see childish fantasy (man, this scout troop is a like a prison!) concatenated with more a more grown-up flight of fantasy (isn’t prison just like the Shawshank Redemption?) to produce a somewhat unique synergy. It’s never overstated, but is always there in the background. It honestly seems like Moonrise Kingdom was a joy to plot, script, produce and direct. It’s certainly a joy to watch.
I have to admit that I actually quite loved Moonrise Kingdom for what it was, an affectionately romantic exploration of the relationship between adults and children, perhaps offering the conclusive proof that Anderson himself views the world with the imagination and enthusiasm of a child, a rare and commendable quality.
Filed under: Non-Review Reviews Tagged: | Anderson, arts, bruce willis, fantastic mr. fox, Fantastic Mr. Fox (film), film, Fox, Khaki Scout, Moonrise Kingdom, Movie, New England, non-review review, review, Sam, Snoopy, stop-motion, Suzy, wes anderson