“I had to work with a bunch of scouts, kids. No money can make that right, can it?” asks Bill Murray, wearing ridiculous Madras pants as a 1965 Dad, in a delightful, droll little 3-minute behind-the-scenes look at Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. The featurette is exactly what Anderson and Murray fans might have hoped for. Moonrise Kingdom itself is a chilly disappointment.
No one has an eye or sensibility like Anderson’s, and in sheer originality the film doesn’t let you down. Set on a small, isolated New England island, Moonrise has some lovely images: a group of boy scouts – or Khaki Scouts as they are so literally renamed here – march single file across a bridge in silhouette. In early scenes the camera approaches the Bishop family home as if it were a doll house, one wall removed to let us roam up and down, approaching rooms framed by archways as if they were mini-stages.
But as the film follows the story of two emotionally deprived 12-year olds just precocious enough to fall in love - Suzy, the Bishops’ oldest child, and Sam, an orphaned scout – it’s impossible not to recall how much more affecting Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums was in its depiction of an emotionally fraught eccentric family, or how his Fantastic Mr. Fox was more attuned to the joy of imagination.
These kids are precisely costumed and made up to exist on the precipice of adulthood. Suzy (Kara Hayward) wears saddle shoes and a ton of blue eye-shadow; Sam (Jared Gilman) wears a childish coonskin cap and has the hint of a yet-to-be-shaved moustache. They run off into the woods together: Sam flees his scout troop, but is really escaping his return to a foster family that doesn’t want him. Suzy is particularly angry at her mother (Frances McDormand) who is cheating on her detached father (Murray) with the sad local police chief (Bruce Willis).
Yet these kids never move or even fascinate us, even though -- or because -- the performances are exactly what Anderson’s diorama-like film calls for. The characters in The Royal Tenenbaums weren’t realistic, but they were totally alive within the fictional world of the film. Suzy and Sam are child actors going through the motions of being quirky. Surrounded by period details – they dance on a beach to a French pop song played on Suzy’s battery-powered record player -- they are seen through a haze of nostalgia, although just whose hazy backward view we’re sharing isn’t clear.
And even in fantasyland, 12-year-old girls are more sophisticated than boys their age; would eye-shadow-wearing Suzy ever have fallen for a shrimp who looks and seems so much younger than she is? Maybe that is meant as another mark of their special qualities, but their bond feels hollow when it should seem enchanting.
The children are meant to be the emotional center of the story, but the adults steal it away because they are so wonderfully plugged-in to Anderson’s wry view of the grown-up world. Murray and McDormand are especially fine and understated as a couple beaten down emotionally yet loyally tethered together, even as she escapes on her bike to meet the chief. It’s a sign of how circumscribed her life has become that this dullard actually seems like an exciting alternative to her husband; slim pickings on this not-so-magical island.
Take a look at the featurette, which hints at the more frivolous yet better film that exists on the edges of this story’s unaffecting center.