Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom” is pure joy. What’s more, it does something nearly impossible in cinema: It captures innocence.
Coming amid a summer devoted mostly to superheroes and super inflated budgets, “Moonrise Kingdom” also offers relief. Bravo to Focus Features for going against the seasonal grain with this film, which opened Cannes 2012 before it hit North American theaters May 25.
The best way to imagine Anderson’s movie is to think of Charles Schultz’s beloved comic strip Peanuts. Like the characters in that strip, this film’s heroes may be pint-sized but their emotions and dreams are larger than life. These young people exist in a world where adults are the true children, or at least lack true maturity, and the children possess a certain innate wisdom.
The scene is set at an Atlantic Coast island called Summer’s End. It’s kinda like Tom Sawyer’s Island at Disneyland, a bucolic reserve with paths but no actual roads and plenty of forests, fields, coastal inlets and rushing rivers. The boys all seem to belong to the Khaki Scouts while the girls read adventure books and long for their own adventures. Watch out — they’re about to begin!
The time is 1965. A 12-year-old Khaki Scout named Sam (Jared Gilman) runs off with a dreamy but rebellious local girl named Suzy (Kara Hayward). He dresses in a coonskin hat, a corn pipe and bottle-thick glasses. She packs sensibility in a pink suitcase that seemingly contains every library book she has stolen and enough kitchen implements so no one will starve. (The young actress, who wears permanent eye shadow and make-up, reminds you somewhat of Emma Watson in the earlier Harry Potter movies.)
The runaways cause the island to mobilize — the Khaki Scouts under their chain-smoking troop leader (Edward Norton); a sad local cop (Bruce Willis); and Suzy’s parents, the Bishops (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), each living in his own world with the mother’s secret liaisons with the policeman coming under more scrutiny than either party wishes.
The runaways have no problem catching fish and pitching camp — indeed the troop leader later says the camp is highly commendable. The adults’ various dysfunctions hinder capture of the AWOL couple until the island’s historian and wise man (Bob Balaban) guesses where they are headed. Since Sam is an orphan — a fact no one seemed to realize until his disappearance — it remains for an officious woman known as Social Services (Tilda Swinton) to fly in via an amphibious aircraft to “rescue” him from his folly.
Anderson films the rural isle (the film was shot in Rhode Island) in flat horizontal compositions that emulates cartoon panels with the sets often overly bright and the adult actors rigid in their attitudes of moral confusion. The young actors, not only the heroes but the highly energized, pursuing Scouts, assume attitudes out of a World War II movie where a military platoon goes out in search of missing comrades — comrades who may not want to be found.
Neither youngster fits comfortably into this overly controlled world. They are in love, or what they imagine love must be, and Anderson and his co-scenarist Roman Coppola wisely portray their love as possessing more of the right stuff than any of the adult match-ups. They kiss and touch each other in a manner that has been learned, perhaps from watching TV or reading books.
Thus this wise and charming live-action cartoon evokes the bittersweet moments of childhood where the two youngsters fling themselves into an adventure of their own making filled with fights, captures, escapes and even a ersatz wedding right up there with “It Happened One Night” for on-the-road romance.
Anderson’s films — the animated “Fantastic Mr. Fox ” along with “Bottle Rocket,” “The Royal Tenanbaums,” “Rushmore,” The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” — are quirky little gems of human dysfunction and deadpan comedy. These tend to win critical laurels but modest box office from his loyal followers. The thinking here is that “Moonrise Kingdom” may change that somewhat. The phrase “more accessible” doesn’t quite fit but the film has a charm and buoyancy Anderson has never quite achieved before. It’s a lot of fun and plays to adults and children, no doubt differently but with equal success.
The film’s design is absolutely winning down to the head-on, locked-down framing to the use of much Benjamin Britten on the soundtrack, especially his “Young People’s Guide to the Orchestra,” which plays on a portable, battery-operated record player Suzy borrows from her younger brother to take on the road. Just as Britten dissects and reassembles the pieces of an orchestra for young listeners, the movie dissects and reassembles childhood on this small island community in the mid-1960s. It’s a movie to see twice.
Opened: May 25 (Focus Features)
Production companies: Focus Features and Indian Paintbrush
Cast: Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Jason Schwartzman, Bob Balaban, Harvey Keitel, Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward
Director: Wes Anderson
Screenwriters: Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola
Producers: Wes Anderson, Scott Rudin, Jeremy Dawson
Director of photography: Robert D. Yeoman
Production designer: Adam Stockhausen
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Costume designer: Kasia Walicka-Maimone
Editor: Robert Weisblum
PG-13 rating, 94 minutes