Wes Anderson's 'Moonrise Kingdom' Opens Cannes on a Sweet Note

The ode to young love overcomes the Royal Tenenbaums director's worst tendencies

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Focus Features

My Cannes 2012 experience got off to a kind start yesterday. When I found myself cash-less and red-faced at a sandwich stand, the petite, blonde-haired woman behind the counter cheerfully chirped, "Pay me tomorrow, it's no problem!"

Then, as she handed me my lunch with a smile: "This wouldn't happen in Paris."

True enough.

Similar sweetness and good humor was on display at this morning's screening of the festival's opening film, Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom, a lovely—if feather-light—ode to young love and growing up. Moonlight Kingdom (out May 25 in the U.S.) is not as enchanting an opener as Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris last year, but its moments of transporting beauty and visual brilliance overcame my growing aversion to Wes Anderson's brand of ultra-stylized archness.

That aversion had me rolling my eyes in the film's first minutes, as Anderson's camera pans across and tracks up and down the interior of a family's New England home, pausing to show us the inhabitants in the meticulously symmetrical, fussily choreographed, accessorized and color-coded shots that are the director's trademark. I've long felt that despite his technical skill, Anderson's dollhouse aesthetic—as distinctive and personal as it may be—has mostly stifled any ounce of spontaneity or genuine emotion in his movies. The filmmaker's jokes have been more "funny" than funny, his picture-frame-ready images are art-directed to within an inch of their lives, and his sensibility has often felt like an aging-hipster pose.

Early scenes in Moonrise Kingdom are a perfect illustration of that tendency, as various adults—Edward Norton as a wholesome camp counsellor, Bill Murray and Frances McDormand as anxious parents, Bruce Willis as a dim cop—dart around in a panic after a 12-year-old boy and girl run away together. The comic-book gags (McDormand using a loudspeaker to call her kids to dinner, Norton performing an inspection of his campers' sleeping quarters) and deadpan dialogue aren't particularly witty, and the cast is too busy winking at the camera for us to ease into the story.

But once Anderson zeroes in on his two young protagonists, a bespectacled oddball named Sam (Jared Gilman) and a sullen, gangly beauty named Suzy (Kara Hayward), the film settles in to a pleasing groove. A montage of the two of them in the woods testing out their survival skills (sucking on rocks to hydrate, catching and frying up fish) is charming, and the interlude in which they camp out on an abandoned beach—their private paradise, complete with softly lapping waves and a pink sunset—casts a gentle poetic spell. Anderson and his young actors pull off one moment I was ready to hate, in which the two dance awkwardly to a Francoise Hardy song (a sort of pre-pubescent version of the famous John Travolta-Uma Thurman dance-off from Pulp Fiction).

He also stages a surprisingly frisky first kiss, making a moment we've seen countless times before feel fresh. Meanwhile, the director composes some strikingly original images, as when Sam pierces Suzy's ears with fish hooks, adorning her with hand-crafted insect earrings as a fine stream of blood trickles down her neck (a mutual deflowering by proxy).

The irony of the adult characters behaving like children (when Tilda Swinton turns up as an uptight social worker, I almost groaned out loud) while the children pursue their plan with grown-up solemnity wears thin. But the stubborn, low-intensity bond between the two young adolescents—passions in Wes Anderson films run cool—is both amusing and touching. The director may treat Sam's and Suzy's love with mock gravity, but there's real feeling in the way he shows them embracing each other's eccentricities: Sam has Suzy read aloud to him from her favorite fantasy novels, while she gingerly removes the pipe from his mouth when he falls asleep.

Even the irritating adult characters deepen as the story progresses, with the kids' escape generating currents of longing and regret in the characters played by Bruce Willis and Frances McDormand. An overly busy finale threatens to bog the movie down in too much action, but Anderson recovers with a gorgeous coda that captures the sense of loss that has always been at the heart of his work—happy endings and all.

He's still a filmmaker teetering dangerously on the brink of terminal tweeness, but Sam and Suzy bring out Anderson's sincere side. "Moonrise Kingdom" is about romantic love, but it's also about love of books, music, nature, and objects—in many regards, a movie that allows Anderson to be himself in a way most of his recent efforts haven't. It may fade from memory as the festival proceeds, but for now at least, "Moonrise Kingdom" has me reconsidering a filmmaker I had started to write off.