Set in the year 1965, the small New England island of New Penzance is in the middle of a small crisis when two children, a young boy scout and a young local girl go missing. The island and all of its residents conduct a large scale search of the entire island looking for the children fearing the worst. However, the one thing none of them realize is that both children have orchestrated their disappearance so that they could run away together, discover each other and themselves in the process and possibly even fall in love for the first time.
Director Wes Anderson is an acquired taste. Some might even say that he has been making the same movie for years now and depending on how you view it, that can be seen as either a good or bad thing by this point. Populated by the same character archetypes in the same setting with the same problems and casting mostly the same actors in roles that fit their personalities, there is very little to distinguish them from one another. Starting back in 1996 with "Bottle Rocket", Anderson set himself apart from the crowd of directors by developing a certain style to his work.
His camera movements, the awkward way characters would interact with one another and the decidedly retro quality to all the aesthetics are all trademarks of the well regarded director. It was shown in almost complete form with his 1998 feature "Rushmore" and later perfected with his 2001 feature "The Royal Tenenbaums". His films have a bedtime story quality to them which has served his material well in the past, however you can only be read the same bedtime story so many times before you start craving something a little different, no matter how well done it is.
That was his crescendo though, with "The Royal Tenenbaums" he had taken his distinct style as far as it could go and in turn produced one of his best films to date. The problem lies in how each of his successive films never really tried to break out of the mold and just felt like the director was treading water from that point forward. "Moonrise Kingdom" will make any Wes Anderson faithfuls feel right at home because like most of his other work, this is essentially the same film he has had made his entire career, albeit with some different actors and a cub scout twist that is more bizarre than it is charming. If that's what you are looking for, more of the same, then you already know if you want to see this movie. If, however, you have grown tired of this dreadfully overly used formula, his newest feature will likely lose your interest immediately.
Taking place entirely on an island with local residents and a cub scouts group led by Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton) scattered about it using it as a training ground for new scouts, there is instantly that trademark Wes Anderson feel to everything. The island, it's inhabitants (both old and new) and the current weather conditions are generously conveyed to us by a narrator speaking directly to us as though he is giving a lecture. When we are introduced to the scouts it is through a number of deliberate panning shots following Scout Master Ward as he checks in with each scout (all credited and given fanciful names such as Lazy Eye) as we see first hand their strange but oddly charming scouting assignments. In true Anderson fashion one of the kids charged with making a tree house cuts down all the trees in the surrounding area and uses the last one which is no bigger than four feet in diameter to build the tree house of which has it teetering and ready to topple over, but looks almost cartoonish.
Each of these strange contraptions being made by the scouts are treated with a complete and utter lack of interest as though these are expected growing pains of a new scout. Such is the hallmark of Anderson who loves to treat oddities as though they are commonplace. Things get even more odd when we discover one of the scouts, Sam (Jared Gilman), has gone AWOL because his fellow scouts loath him along with another ulterior motive that is soon revealed. Thus our story begins as Scout Master Ward sends his scouts out into the wilderness in search of Sam and also contacts the island's local (and only?) law officer, Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis). Upon Captain Sharp scouring the island and knocking on doors he eventually comes across the house that Suzy (Kara Hayward), another recent runaway lives in and confronts her parents, Walt and Laura Bishop (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand).
After all this set up we finally discover what all these eccentric and somewhat one dimensional characters have been working towards which is that Sam and Suzy have run off together after spending most of the year as pen pals where they expressed their affections for one another. There is no real denying the inherent sweetness to their young love, but it is consistently undermined by Anderson's little gimmicks with his trademark bizarre humor and sterile emotional approach to everything. For example, for some reason when the kids are discovered by the other scouts, they attack Sam and Suzy which results in a number of kids getting injured (one is even stabbed) and a dead dog. It is clear as day that Anderson is going for a fairy tale style story here, but sometimes you just wish he would let the story unfold in a natural way instead of constantly throwing in all these unneeded distractions. Sure, it can be argued that there is some slight character development hidden beneath his usual trappings but it still begins to grate after a while.
When we see them first meet you can tell instantly that they connect with one another as they share many of the same parental afflictions. As they begin to discover themselves on this little journey they also discover each other and with each passing moment you can tell their attraction towards one another grows. The two young actors that Anderson cast are also to be commended because although they are acting in the trademark deadpan style the director commands of all his actors, there is a lot of talent on screen that is clearly being suppressed but both still find a way to give earnest and heartfelt performances. They have an immense amount of chemistry with each other and their scenes together are not only a highlight of the film, but is the only thing that makes slogging through the rest of it worthwhile which makes how their adventure gets cut short early on that much more disappointing and rather unwieldy.
There is a constant reminder of an impending storm and the discovery of a main scout headquarters on a neighboring island that is run like a military camp that threaten to destroy all the good will earned by Sam and Suzy's story up to that point. It goes even further than that though by turning their blossoming love story into this race against time where all the characters are forced to confront each other amidst a cataclysmic storm. Strange incidents such as a pre-pubescent wedding, a child being struck by lightning and a daring but unlikely rescue by Scout Master Ward are only a handful of the weirdness that overwhelms the more interesting story involving the two children. Once again, if you have ever seen a Wes Anderson movie before, all these story beats should feel very familiar to you because he has used these story telling devices far too many times now which makes nearly everything that happens in the film feel excessively plodding and extremely predictable in the process.
If by some chance you are OK with that then you might come away from "Moonrise Kingdom" fairly entertained by the bizarre and charming antics of its colorful assortment of characters and the well executed but ultimately sabotaged look at the new found love between two lost souls who despite their age have found a way and a will to survive side by side. Wes Anderson needs to take a break from this tired formula and show us that he can make a movie without extremely troubled, quirky, strange, yet oddly likeable characters that show little to no emotion and surrounded by other colorful characters that's only personality traits are their display of odd behavior while remaining emotional detached from everything around them. It was tired a decade ago and it is near unbearable now.