A near triumph of style over substance

Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom is achingly kitsch, but the stellar cast saves it from self-indulgence.

Tom Slater

Tom Slater

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Wes Anderson is one of the most polarising directors of his generation. Not that his work is particularly challenging. Far from it: for the majority of his career he has seemed content with trotting out the same kitschy and vaguely melancholic style which defined his Oscar-nominated 2001 film, The Royal Tenenbaums. Instead, what makes his output so difficult is that it’s often rather difficult to like, with his self-aware, hipstery schtick seeming to obscure the fact that he isn’t half as poignant a storyteller as he may like to think he is.

With his 2004 critical and commercial flop, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, the novelty finally wore off. And while 2007’s Darjeeling Limited helped to regain much of his credibility, his true comeback came in the rather unlikely form of his stop-motion Roald Dahl adaptation, Fantastic Mr. Fox. In many ways, this unexpected side-step embodied many of the components which had already gone stale. It had the same rosy aesthetic, and the blank acting Anderson favours easily translated into monotone voice-acting and rigid puppetry. However, his characteristic mismatch of light superficial humour and moroseness proved to be the perfect marriage with Dahl’s bittersweet narrative. While Anderson could often come undone when grappling with more distinctly adult characters, in a child-like but no less imaginative frame, his style took on a more unassuming charm.

So it seems Anderson was always cut out for children’s filmmaking. Not by contemporary standards, but like the more sinister Disney outings, in which happy-ever-afters only ever came after a decent amount of death and destitution, Anderson seems uniquely qualified to produce darkly moving films for youngsters.

Distilling worldly themes into a cutesy tale, his latest outing, Moonrise Kingdom, stands somewhere in between Fantastic Mr. Fox and The Royal Tenenbaums. Sam (Jared Gilman) is a dejected orphan, knocked from pillar to post by social services and unfeeling foster parents. Pawned-off for the summer on a boy-scout troupe, Sam is shunned by his peers because of his violent outbursts, and hatches a plan to escape with his paramour, Suzy (Kara Hayward). Having met at a church pageant, the two begin exchanging letters and bond over their troubles. Suzy is similarly prone to violence and introversion and is kept at arm’s length by her workaholic lawyer parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand). Using Sam’s newly acquired outdoorsman skills, they retrace an ancient Native American trail that leads to an untouched cove, Moonrise Kingdom, in which they hope they can live their lives free from the adult world.

Set on a fictional New England island in 1965, the film unfurls in a kitschy, gooey-eyed haze. For those who feel Anderson is all style and no substance, the opening half provides little to convince you otherwise. The acting is muted, the dialogue taut, and Anderson’s characteristic aesthetic is left to take centre stage. As such, the emotional core of the story is glossed over by a wash of primary colours and vintage décor, with a ludicrous outfit or a naff piece of Sixties wallpaper serving as weak visual punchlines that carry the film in its first few scenes.

However, as the story develops, the stellar cast help to draw out the intricacies behind the characters’ cartoonish exteriors. Bill Murray shines as Suzy’s impassive and fraught father, while Bruce Willis puts in an affecting performance as the island’s lovelorn cop. But it is the two young leads who truly steal the show. Anderson allows for little in the way of actorly flourish, yet both Gilman and Hayward come off diffident and damaged rather than merely blank, and as a result their blossoming romance feels surprisingly sincere.

As Willis leads a troupe of deputised, and heavily armed, boy-scouts out in pursuit of the escaped lovers, the story takes darker turns. Blood is drawn, scouts walk away with stab wounds and a puppy loses its life, but the film retains a faint sense of ridiculousness that keeps proceedings light.

Stylised to within an inch of its life, Moonrise Kingdom can feel like little more than self-indulgent filmmaking. But while it remains a whimsical, and at times, superficial fairy tale, it retains enough worldliness to make it an engaging film for children and adults alike.

Tom Slater is spiked’s film reviewer. Visit his blog here.

Watch the trailer for Moonrise Kingdom:

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