Twelve again: The magic of “Moonrise Kingdom.”

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This is the final entry in my Wes Anderson Blogathon, which has been fabulously successful. To see all the entries by various movie bloggers on Wes Anderson’s body of work, go to the original article and scroll to the end. Thanks everyone who took part!

I grew up in the 1980s. I was twelve–the age of Moonrise Kingdom‘s protagonist Sam Shakusky–in 1985, but it’s amazing to look back from my childhood and realize how much of it, even in that year, was a holdover from the mid-1960s. Well into the 80s, most of the furniture in our family’s house still dated from the 1960s. Many of the books I grew up with were published during that decade; we read a lot of secondhand books. I even remember, in the sixth grade, I had a science textbook that included a section titled “Man on the Moon: Is It Really Possible?” My early adolescence was really a pastiche of decades. Sure, there was Michael Jackson, M.A.S.K. and the Transformers, but I also read Mike Mars and Tom Swift books (published in the 1960s) and my favorite show was Star Trek which came on the air in 1966.

Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom is a brilliant and magical film that perfectly recreates that strange moment in time, and does so through the eyes of a 12-year-old. It’s billed as a “coming of age” story but the tropes of that genre that flit through the picture–the craven bullies, the awkward first kiss, tension with parents, learning “life lessons”–never seem as cynical or tired as they do in most other coming-of-age movies. Part of it is that, instead of looking down on kids or humoring their immature ideas about how the world works, Anderson takes their world seriously on its own terms. The result is one of the best films of 2012 and an instant classic that will stand the test of time.

Moonrise Kingdom is the story of Sam (Jared Gilman), a smart and resourceful but troubled kid who lives with a foster family on the New England island of New Penzance. It is the summer of 1965, and Sam has been hatching a plan to run away into the wilderness with Suzy (Kara Hayward). Their escape causes consternation among Suzy’s parents (Frances McDormand and Bill Murray), as well as Sam’s scoutmaster (Edward Norton) who mobilizes his troop posse-style to bring him back alive. The island’s police chief Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) is after the kids too, but he comes to realize that Sam, who is rejected by his foster family, has a lot of endearing qualities. As Sam and Suzy explore the wilds of the island and their own budding love, just about everybody learns a lesson of one kind or another, culminating with a devastating Nor’Easter that strikes New Penzance at the height of the drama.

The plot of Moonrise Kingdom is almost incidental. It’s the world that Wes Anderson creates, entirely fictional, that keeps you watching the film, entranced. New Penzance, which does not exist in real life, is the kind of weedy, rocky, semi-forested place where old Indian legends and ancient historical mysteries lie under fields of waving grass and at the foot of big boulders–the kind of place folk historian Edward Rowe Snow wrote about in his books. Suzy brings with her several books, also entirely imaginary, with titles like The Girl from Jupiter, exactly the sort of juicy stories, fantastical and yet maudlin, that many of us cherished when we were that age. Even the costumes, from the Khaki Scouts’ ridiculous uniforms to Bill Murray’s hideous checkered pants, evoke an era of both innocence and gaudiness which was exactly what the 1960s were. Firmly rooted in New England scenery and iconography, Moonrise Kingdom shows us a place as made-up as Middle Earth, yet so eerily familiar to the viewer that we can almost remember growing up there ourselves. Few films can spin this sort of magic and succeed so brilliantly.

The “wedding” scene from Moonrise Kingdom, featuring Wes Anderson regular Jason Schwartzman, is one of the most classic examples of Anderson’s visual and narrative style.

And for all of it, Moonrise Kingdom is incredibly delicate. Most of the dialogue is restrained and understated. The camera glides lazily by rocky fields and New England gingerbread houses glowing in that burnished summer sunlight you only see up there. Anderson’s frontal, right-angle camera style seems sometimes to soften rather than magnify what’s happening on the screen. A lesser director could have torn this material to shreds with just a few wrong camera moves, some wrong cues to the actors or a bit of mismatched music on the soundtrack. Anderson, though, crafts Moonrise Kingdom as if he expects that it’s his masterpiece. Perhaps it is. The care taken with this film shows how much he (and the others who made it) believed in it. It shows.

The most fun thing about Moonrise Kingdom is that it transports you back to when you were twelve–but in recognizing that for many of us that age was a wrenching and unpleasant experience, it takes care to sand off the rough edges at the same time. In the scenes involving Sam and Suzy’s awkward romance, the awkwardness is still there, but we (the audience) still feel carried away by the romance instead of shamed by its awkwardness. All of us were awkward and uncertain when we were 12, but we carried ourselves as if we owned the world. That strange contradiction is a good summation of what Moonrise Kingdom is. It’s an absolutely wonderful film.

Thanks for following along the Wes Anderson Blogathon this past week!

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The poster for Moonrise Kingdom is copyright (C) 2012 by Focus Features (I think) or whoever claims copyright over the film’s promotional materials. I believe my inclusion of it here is permissible under fair use. I am not the uploader of the YouTube clips embedded here.
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3 Comments

  1. Really good review! Moonrise Kingdom was the first Wes Anderson film I watched so it has a special place in my heart. The blogathon has been so much fun to do! Thanks for setting it up 🙂

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