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My 12 for ’12: Moonrise Kingdom & The Virtues of Eternal Childhood

I’m counting down my top twelve films of the year between now and January, starting at #12 and heading to #1. I expect the list to be a little bit predictable, a little bit surprising, a little bit of everything. All films released in the UK and Ireland in 2012 qualify. Sound off below, and let me know if I’m on the money, or if I’m completely off the radar. And let me know your own picks or recommendations.

This is #8

I’ll freely confess that I am not a huge Wes Anderson fan. I admire the fact that he has managed to maintain a distinct and consistent aesthetic, one quite different from that found elsewhere, but I’m not necessarily fond of his entire body of work. I harbour a fondness for Rushmore, The Fantastic Mr. Fox and – now – Moonrise Kingdom. They are, in theory at least, three very different films – one of them is a stop-motion animated adaptation of a classic Roald Dahl story, for instance. However, the linking theme among (what I perceive to be) Anderson’s strongest work is a romantic sense of childhood. Anderson’s characters are often children, no matter their actual age or how far they’ve travelled, and I think that Anderson’s work is at its very best when it embraces that sense of perpetual childhood.moonrisekingdom

In many respects, Moonrise Kingdom feels like something of a fairytale. The narration from Bob Balaban seems like something taken from a wonderfully illustrated children’s book, as he guides us through the surroundings, culture and history of New Penzance. Although it’s really just New England, there’s something quite remarkable about Sam and Suzy’s attempts to retrace the Old Chickshaw Harvest Migration Trail. We know the exact dimensions of the island thanks to Bob Balaban’s introductory notes, and traversing it doesn’t seem an especially impressive feat. And yet, to a would-be wilderness explorer and a runaway, it seems like something of an epic quest.

Robert Yeoman’s cinematography makes the movie seem like a watercolour brought to life. The greens and yellows of New England are rendered absolutely beautifully, as is the deep blue sea that surrounds the island. Anderson films the story in such a way that it seems like a life action cartoons, the laws of physics rendered as mere suggestions rather than concrete rules. In fact, there’s something rather beautiful about the world as seen through Wes Anderson’s unique viewpoint.

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That tree house is impossibly high. Escaping from a scout group is akin to mounting a successful jailbreak. Following a harvest migration trail is a grand and epic quest that may as well traverse Middle Earth. Evading a mass of pursuing scouts and authorities seems like something taken from a live-action cartoon. Everything is deadly serious and utterly ridiculous at the same time. It is, quite frankly, the world as seen through the eyes of a child.

I’d argue that this is one of the reasons I am less fond of The Darjeeling Limited or The Royal Tenenbaums than I am of Rushmore or The Fantastic Mr. Fox or Moonrise Kingdom. It feels somewhat strange to see grown adults acting like petulant children with a limited understanding of how the world works. It seems better when that viewpoint is given to teenagers, or to anthropomorphic animals. The children in Moonrise Kingdom actually see the world as children do – I felt a hint of nostalgia for how I once imagined the world might work.

Into the wild blue yonder...

Into the wild blue yonder…

Of course, everybody must grown up. As Corinthians famously remarked, “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” It’s an instantly recognisable quote, and one offered far too often as a justification for the way that we allow the wonder and magic to drain from the world around us. One day you wake up and New Penzance doesn’t feel like the whole world. Instead it is just sixteen miles long.

The adults of Moonrise Kingdom have all grown up, to some extent or another. While each of the adults have lost sight of the wonder and innocence of childhood, they all retain some element of childishness – some hint of arrested development. Laura and Walt Bishop are lawyers. They talk like grown-ups, even if they don’t necessarily act like them. Sleeping in separate beds, Laura is more likely to address her husband from across the house using a megaphone than she is to actually talk to him. Similarly, Walt is more likely to responding to her directly, instead evading using legalese to accuse her of asking “a leading question.”

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Walt and Laura have forgot the earnestness and honesty that comes with being a child. When Suzy confronts Laura about her affair with that “sad, dumb policeman”, Laura simply dodges the question. “It’s not appropriate for me to even acknowledge what I already just said,” Laura tells her daughter. Walt, for his part, is more likely to engage in passive-aggressive sniping than he is to actually engage with anything that’s troubling him.

Captain Sharp grew up and became self-sufficient. He even lives on a little house boat, perhaps the ultimate expression of independence. And yet, despite that, he is unable to come to terms with his own wants or needs. He’s unable to deal with any real responsibility until Sam inspires him to do so at the climax of the film. He is the chief of police, but he’s the police of chief on an island with a relatively small population, and one where everybody knows everybody.

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Similarly, Scout Master Randy Ward became a teacher (or a scout master, whatever he considers his “real job”) and learned to pay his own bills, but he still longs for the approval and respect of a distant father figure, Commander Pierce. He’s caught up in the importance and ritual of the “khaki scouts”, an organisation that is ultimately quite pointless in the grand scheme of things, but one that he imbues with meaning and gravity. It’s something to be taken seriously, and the irony of Randy Ward is that he takes his obligations so seriously that he seems childish in his own way – he lacks any ability to distinguish the trivial from the important.

C.S. Lewis once argued that the key to growing up is not a firm rejection of the innocence that comes with childhood, but an acknowledgement that its has its time and its place. “When I became a man I put away childish things,” he argued, “including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.” Sam and Suzy might find themselves trapped inside a childish romantic fantasy, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t teach the adults of New Penzance a thing or too.

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Discussing things with Sam, Captain Sharp is moved by the kid’s romantic appeal. “That’s very eloquent,” he concedes. “I can’t argue against anything you’re saying. But then again, I don’t have to, ’cause you’re 12 years old.” Captain Sharp is an adult, and thus he knows better. It’s no wonder that the failure of any of the adults on the island to properly relate to or engage with Sam and Suzy leads directly to their next escape attempt, which puts both Sam and Suzy in mortal danger. It’s the unwillingness of any of the grown-up characters to give any weight to their viewpoint, instead dismissing it as childish, that courts disaster.

Moonrise Kingdom proposes that sometimes adults can learn as much from kids as kids can from their elders, and that sometimes it isn’t enough to assume that a person knows better simply because they are old enough to vote or to drink. “We’re all they’ve got, Walt,” Laura tells her husband at one point in the film. He concedes, “That’s not enough.” A child needs more than simply a requisite amount of care – more than food, clothes and shelter.

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That’s why the threat of Social Services is so severe. She’ll give Sam a nice home and three square meals, but at the cost of “shock therapy” that will “cure” him of his out bursts and his instability. Moonrise Kingdom earns its happy endings when the adults finally stop worrying about their own problems, and consider the wants and needs of the children in their custody. Sam doesn’t need routine. He needs a family, and Captain Sharp saves the day by stepping up to the task. It’s a remarkably simple solution. In fact, it’s the most logical solution, it’s just something that Sharp never would have considered.

There is something to be said for childishness. We can hold on to the stubbornness and the selfishness and the neediness that comes with being a child as we enter adulthood, but it’s far too easy to lose sight of the innocence and wonder in all that. Moonrise Kingdom is an ode to that sort of magical world view, the notion that perhaps there are worse things than the idealism and romance of childhood.

Check out our 12 favourite films of 2012:

12. The Raid (Redemption)

11. Skyfall

10. Room 237

09. Jeff Who Lives at Home

08. Moonrise Kingdom

07. Silver Linings Playbook

06. The Master

05. Prometheus

 

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2 Responses

  1. I too have never been a huge fan of Wes Anderson’s films, though I appreciate his unique voice and vision as a director that is sorely missing in many filmmakers of his generation. I greatly enjoyed “Moonrise Kingdom,” though it was oddly distant emotionally. My one criticism of it is despite its fantasy-like quality, there were a couple over-the-top cartoonish moments, such as when Sam is struck by lightning and is left with a blackened face even though his shoes were thrown off his feet. I almost expected something like that in an Adam Sandler movie, not one that is so painstakingly created as this. But that’s a minor quibble. The cinematography is gorgeous and some shots seemed right out of Normal Rockwell.

    • I can understand that – it is occasionally a bit aloof.

      That said, I didn’t mind the cartoonishness so much, because it seemed more like a beautifully illustrated storybook brought to life, rather than anything even resembling reality. The cinematography in general is amazing, but I love that silhouetted shot of Bruce Willis holding the two kids against a blue sky. I can’t figure out why, but that shot really stuck with me.

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