Sunkissed Runaways

If Wes Anderson’s legion of detractors can manage to bite their tongues, defend their cynical aversion to anything heartfelt and quirky and stubbornly claim that the director’s latest Hardy Boys-romance-comedy-adventure “Moonrise Kingdom” is simply pretentious fluff, then congratulations, you officially have no soul.

For the rest of us, it’s time to get excited about going to the theatre.

“Moonrise Kingdom” takes place in the mid ‘60s (a perfect fit for Anderson’s nostalgic eye) on the fictional island of New Penzance, off the coast of New England. The film follows two wayward twelve-year-olds — the orphan intellectual and expert outdoorsman Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman), and the “troubled” fantasy novel loving, binocular-sporting Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) — who fall in love and decide to escape their cruel circumstances by running away together.

This quickly prompts an eclectic, island-wide search party consisting of Suzy’s bickering lawyer parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), Sam’s Khaki Scout troop fronted by endearing Scout Master Randy Ward (Edward Norton) and the island’s lone police official, Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis). But when the children are found, and Sam’s rocky past is revealed, the island’s lovable bunch finds a new common enemy in the stoic and impatient Social Services (Tilda Swinton), who aims to place Sam in an orphanage.

The script, which Anderson cowrote with “Darjeeling Limited” collaborator Roman Coppola, acts as an amalgam of the greatest aspects of his past films: the coming-of-age rebel/loner plight of “Rushmore,” the charismatic character study of “The Royal Tenenbaums,” the stylized cartoon action of “The Life Aquatic” and the smiling family-friendly heart of “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” The product is a sort of micro-scale “Casablanca” starring a tween Bonnie and Clyde, with all the magic realism of Suzy’s young adult fiction.

Arguably for the first time, Anderson’s surreal Technicolor style and wry humor never upstages his attempts at bona fide drama or suspense, and often, one erupts straight from the other. After the troop’s search dog, Snoopy, is accidentally slain by an arrow following a violent confrontation with the Khaki Scout search party, Sam and Suzy solemnly stand over the body. “Was he a good dog?” she asks. “Who’s to say?” Sam replies with the stone-faced machismo of a turn-of-the-century war novel hero. “But he didn’t deserve to die.”

Not all of the film’s comedy lies in the mere fact that these children are acting like adults (and most of the adults, like children). The ensemble bursts at the seams with perfectly-cast, singular characters — from Jason Schwartzman’s bizarro child smuggler/ordained minister Cousin Ben, to the immensely talented child actors that comprise Khaki Scout Troop 55, to our badass and bespectacled protagonist, who resembles “Rushmore”’s iconic Max Fischer in more ways than one.

Surprisingly, Murray provides little of the film’s humor via his signature disgruntled deadbeat character (with the occasional subtle exception) — alternately delivering a tattered and real buffer for the rest of the vibrant cast. Instead, this distinction goes to Willis and Norton, whose lovelorn police officer Sharp and naive man-boy Scout Master Randy Ward are true Anderson originals, as well as delightfully atypical roles for both actors.

Despite their on-screen confidence, the romance seems like a tough sell for the young leads at first — not that it particularly matters amidst the ingenious script and almost overwhelming mise-en-scene. But as the couple’s adventure presses on, their clunky, yet sincere chemistry only contributes to their naive, confused and wholly realistic charm. It makes for a less-calculated approach for Anderson — further aided by his warm and grainy 16mm film — that imbues this world with a spellbinding adolescent purity. When Sam says, “I love you, but you don’t know what you’re talking about,” and Suzy replies with a tender, “I love you too” we forget for moment what age these kids are, let alone the fact that they’re acting. By the time we’re dancing beachside with Sam and Suzy midway through (and what a batshit genuine dance it is), we’re as convinced and in love as the two of them.

Of course, “Moonrise Kingdom” also delivers Anderson’s trademark fare. There’s an excellent soundtrack punctuated by Leonard Bernstein’s “A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” and Françoise Hardy’s sensual “Le Temps de l’Amour” for the aforementioned dance scene. “Fantastic Mr. Fox” composer Alexandre Desplat delivers a natural and relatively unassuming score, and yes, there’s one awesome slo-mo scene toward the end.

But Anderson’s best moments have always been when he’s managed to transcend the sum of his manicured and monumental parts, sparking glimpses of beautiful, heartbreaking magic.

“Moonrise Kingdom” accomplishes this from start to finish. It’s an incredibly indulgent adventure masterpiece without an ounce of arrogance, it’s a godsend for the auteur’s cult fans and it’s Wes Anderson’s best film to date. (A)

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