There are diehard Wes Anderson fans and then there's everyone else. "Moonrise Kingdom," the idiosyncratic auteur's seventh feature, eagerly pitches itself toward that first group of audiences and ignores the rest. But if those open to Anderson quirks will find a rewarding experience littered with warmth and playful humor.
Continuing the upbeat, celebratory outlook of his 2009 animated venture "Fantastic Mr. Fox," the new movie displays the director's increasing confidence in his homegrown style. Set (for no discernible reason, other than the excuse to justify the antiquated set design and costumes on the tiny New England island of New Penzance in 1965, "Moonrise Kingdom" focuses on the whimsical young romance shared by orphan 12-year-old Sam (Jared Gilman, a real find, the moodiest American actor this young since the heydays of Haley Joel Osment) and Suzy (Kara Hayward, the new Dakota Fanning to Gilman's Osment), who comes from a troubled family and suffers from rage issues that her parents (Frances McDormand and Bill Murray) struggle to solve. As always with Anderson, these ostensibly sad characters find an outlet for their discontent in flightiness.
Drawn together by their mutual feelings of alienation, the two adolescents meet cute a year before the movie begins and become pen pals. This leads them to dream up an aimless runaway plot when Sam comes to the island for camp. While Sam's desertion causes the awkwardly devoted Khaki Scout leader Master Ward (Edward Norton) to gather the other troopers and launch a search expedition, the couple must also deal with the efforts of scowling island sheriff Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis, who's egged on by Suzy's folks and forced to fully commit himself to the task -- possibly because he's engaged in a clandestine affair with her mother.
The ensemble should make it clear that Anderson has once again assembled a diverse cast of deadpan performers relishing the opportunity to wander through this scenario. Nobody steals the show more than Bob Balaban in a handful of scenes as the local scientist predicting a storm that sets the stage for a dramatically exaggerated climax.
But Anderson movies have less to do with clever story twists than the relish the filmmaker brings to them. Within its first 15 minutes, "Moonrise Kingdom" nimbly employs a split screen, first-person mode of address, scenes flush with color schemes to indicate various moods and personality types, abruptly funny flashbacks and a camera that nimbly tilts from right to left -- as if the entire Andersonian universe existed on a comic strip zipping before our eyes in real time.
Which, in essence, it does. Anderson's handmade, childlike aesthetic fits the way "Moonrise Kingdom" adopts a child's point of view. For the same reason, "Moonrise Kingdom" loses some its appeal when it moves away from the Sam/Suzy dynamic. Certain details feel half-formed or glossed over, particularly those involving dramas of the adult world, such as the McDormand/Willis affair and an underutilized Murray's issues with depression.
Nevertheless, Anderson compensates for occasional narrative inelegance with the movie's central fugitive conceit, which plays like a hyperbolic, miniaturized "Saving Private Ryan" as the scouts head off in militaristic pursuit of the missing lovers. Although they never do much more than wander through a small wooded area, Sam and Suzy get treated as high-priority felons, a feat that replicates the young person's perspective of a world in which trivial matters can seem extremely dire.
Following that same logic, the stakes are rendered in the simplest terms. By the time Tilda Swinton shows up as a social services representative named… Social Services, it's clear that "Moonrise Kingdom" not only achieves a pitch-perfect rendition of Anderson's storytelling approach but also, within that context, functions as a work of fantasy to an even greater degree than "Fantastic Mr. Fox," where it made sense that all the animals could talk because that's just what they do. In "Moonrise Kingdom," the lovers-on-the-lam plot maintains a heightened absurdity that stretches beyond the specifics of the story.
Even when that story drags, "Moonrise Kingdom" could be appreciated on mute. Art directed to a fault, most scenes contain colors blatantly arranged for the analytically minded. Streaks of yellow -- found on handkerchieves, mini-tents and the home of Sam's foster parents -- represents a certain idealistic sense of security, while blue points to outright danger and red indicates the glaring curiosity that pushes the main characters to explore the world around them. Despite these codes, there's nothing secret about the infectious qualities sustaining Anderson's vision.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Focus Features releases "Moonrise Kingdom" on May 25 in New York and Los Angeles. Although unlikely to take home the Palme d'Or at Cannes this year, the festival should treat the film kindly and help set the stage for a very strong performance at the specialty box office.