After triumphs with "Rushmore" and "The Royal Tenenbaums," the writer/director and quirk auteur Wes Anderson overreached and faded. In his less-celebrated "The Darjeeling Limited" and "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou," he attempted travelogue epics that ultimately spread too thin and couldn't support the sort of tight emotional core that drove the earlier films. Perhaps his sojourn into animation with the thoroughly blissful "The Fantastic Mr. Fox" three years ago reacquainted Anderson with his genius as a toymaker. His work feels authentic when he grafts adult sensibilities onto children (or onto subterranean anthropomorphized mammals), more so than when he foists childlike qualities onto his adults. In Anderson's hands the former feels precocious; the latter, merely precious.
Rarely if ever has he applied those talents to better effect than in his new "Moonrise Kingdom," largely due to its setup: Before painting a fascinating, moving adolescent romance, Anderson stretched a tidy canvas for himself. The story takes place in 1965 (cue jangly Hank Williams soundtrack) on a small island or two in New England, where a young Khaki Scout named Sam (Jared Gilman, debuting) goes missing from his troop one September morning. The earnest, stern, cigarette-puffing scout master (Edward Norton, making a long-awaited return to films that are worth a damn) orders the remaining scouts to scour the island and return Sam unharmed — not a given, considering how generally disliked the boy is. Elsewhere on the island, a malcontent young girl named Suzy (Kara Hayward, another kid you've never seen before) wanders away from her family's home, suitcase and record player in hand. When her attorney parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) find out she had been pen pals with the missing Sam, they join the hunt for the two fugitive 12-year-olds. Bruce Willis, as the local cop, and Tilda Swinton, as the earthly avatar of Social Services, appear in fine form. Also, a hurricane is on the way.
So, to recap. A bygone era, an enclosed setting (really, all of Anderson's movies have taken place on islands, even when geography hasn't reflected that truth), and children behaving with a profound seriousness, both as sweethearts on the lam and as the deputized scouts pursuing them. In this sandbox, Anderson goes to work. The little details that could appear forced — a way-too-high tree house, split-screen phone conversations, starched dialogue for little boys, shirtless and axe-lugging Murray, a lavish play-within-a-play — instead feel right for the time and for the characters. (Who better to display unselfconsciously inflated egos than children, lawyers and government employees?) The soundtrack conveys the juvenile heroism of summer camp. On their scale, Sam and Suzy are no less dangerous and inseparable than Bonnie and Clyde. Anderson embroiders every character and scene so minutely that, unlike his more sprawling works, "Moonrise Kingdom" resonates effortlessly with an epic tone.
The spirit at work here is one worth remembering as yet another summer settles over us. Children who work to build fledgling societies of survival and of love either follow the patterns of previous generations or strike out to redefine the world. When Sam and Suzy find a particular secluded inlet, where they paint and swim and dance and smooch, they endeavor to rename it. For the young and smitten, every day is the biggest ever, and the trodden world is ripe to be discovered and described anew. Before jilts and routine and distraction bleach the heart, the young can live love stories their elders can only imagine. Anderson finds one here, and tells it with such aplomb and humor you almost forget he's a grown-up.
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