The Youthful Magic of 'Moonrise Kingdom'

Wes Anderson's latest film is his best since Rushmore.

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Focus Features

There was a time, following the jolt of intergenerational perplexity that was Rushmore, when Wes Anderson's career seemed set on a disappointing trajectory: the almost suffocating portraiture of The Royal Tenenbaums; the choppy, half-hearted absurdism of The Life Aquatic; the borderline distasteful ethno-tourism of The Darjeeling Limited.

The script captures the texture of childhood summers, the sense of having a limited amount of time in which to do unlimited things.

And then, the re-set. By supplying him with an original text and a format—stop-motion animation—so twee as to be essentially twee-proof, Fantastic Mr. Fox enabled Anderson to jump the track of his own roller-coaster descent. Judging from his latest, Moonrise Kingdom, his promising new course has stuck. The film is Anderson's best live-action feature—his best feature, period—since Rushmore, in part because, like that film, it takes as its primary subject matter odd, precocious children, rather than the damaged and dissatisfied adults they will one day become.

The movie, which takes place in 1965, opens with a cross-stitch portrait of a red New England vacation home with its own small, built-in lighthouse. The portrait, we soon see, hangs in that selfsame red vacation home. (Yes, this is a Wes Anderson movie.) This is the warm-weather abode of Walt and Laura Bishop (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), two attorneys who have been drifting apart, their marital estrangement signified by the name of the property: Summer's End.

But this is only peripherally the story of Walt and Laura, or of their three young sons. Rather, it is the tale of their "difficult" eldest child, 12-year-old Suzy (Kara Hayward) and another young misfit with whom she—there really is no better word for it—elopes. This would be Sam (Jared Gilman), a serious, bespectacled, and unpopular boy who fell in love with Suzy the prior year, when he saw her playing the raven in a summer production of Benjamin Britten's Noye's Fludde. (It is one of several references to the composer in the film.)

Sam goes AWOL from his troop of Khaki Scouts at nearby Camp Ivanhoe to rendezvous with Suzy. United, the two disappear into the wooded thickets of New Penzance Island—the name itself is worth the price of admission—Suzy with her binoculars and pastel suitcases and battery-powered record player; Sam with his coonskin cap and corncob pipe and abundance of camping gear. There, in the dappled forests and sunswept coves, the two young runaways discover freedom, and companionship, and the early, innocent rumblings of sex. As they follow their trail of pseudo-maturity, they are of course sought after by an escalatingly (and understandably) frantic brigade of adults: Suzy's parents, the local police captain (Bruce Willis), and Sam's scoutmaster (Edward Norton). As this last informs the young scouts he's dragooned into the hunt: "This is not just a rescue party. This is a great scouting opportunity."

The book is awash with echoes of children's adventure fiction, from Tom Sawyer to Treasure Island to A High Wind in Jamaica. Underage though they may be, the kids are resourceful, optimistic, capable of loyalty and love—all the qualities with which their elders struggle. It's worth noting that this is the rare tale set in 1965 in which most of the adults are single, and the one marriage to which we are introduced is an unhappy one. (Well, the one legally binding marriage: I should cite here a hilarious cameo by Jason Schwartzman as a renegade scoutmaster with a weakness for performing age-inappropriate matrimonies.)

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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