When Kara Hayward steals away for a romantic camping adventure with her endearingly awkward 12-year-old suitor (Jared Gilman), she brings along an impractical array of supplies, including a portable record player and a cachet of illustrated books with titles like Shelly And The Secret Universe. Wes Anderson’s charming fantasy Moonrise Kingdom feels like an adaptation of one of those books, at least in the world it creates—cloistered, enchanted, and full of hand-drawn wonders, the sort of place that authors lay out in a detailed map before the first chapter. For seven features now, Anderson has created secret universes like the one in Moonrise Kingdom, and invited viewers to immerse themselves in the idealized realm of his own miniaturist obsessions. Yet as tempting as it can be to dismiss them as fussy little art objects or shallow exercises in pastiche, his films aren’t closed off entirely. Real emotions occasionally ripple their pristine surfaces.
Fans and detractors alike will acknowledge the Wes Anderson-iness of New Penzance, the East Coast island where much of Moonrise Kingdom takes place. There are no paved roads in New Penzance, and though it’s accessible by ferry, it’s so removed from the chaos of the outside world, it might as well be accessible by fairy. Only the submarine in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou or the farms and underground abodes in Fantastic Mr. Fox exist in more insular worlds-within-a-world, and like those films, the tracking shots in Moonrise Kingdom often make it seem like the characters are specimens in a giant, ornate dollhouse. And while there are plenty of markers to support its 1965 setting—the Hank Williams songs and French New Wave-inspired Alexandre Desplat score, the meticulous period costumes, other bits of décor and accessories— it likewise feels like being transported to a faraway land.
If there’s an Anderson surrogate in Moonrise Kingdom, it’s probably Edward Norton, a troop leader at Camp Ivanhoe who leads his Khaki Scouts with a tidiness and enthusiasm that masks private traces of melancholy. In the orderly barracks of Camp Ivanhoe, the boys are bonded by a military-like esprit d’corps, and are so committed to the group dynamic that their leader identifies them in shorthand like “Left Eye” and “Redford.” Gilman is the runt of the litter, a bespectacled outcast whom Norton describes as “the least popular scout by a significant margin.” After falling for Hayward from afar the previous summer, Gilman runs away from the camp and steals her away from her parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), who can barely hide their miserable marriage from Hayward and her three little brothers.
Gilman and Hayward are an odd pair: He’s an orphan whose camping skills far outstrip his social dexterity, and she’s sophisticated and worldly beyond her years, at times resembling a glamorous French movie star. As the kids dash off to some hidden corner of New Penzance, Hayward’s parents convince the local police captain (Bruce Willis) to join the hunt, but his sympathy for Gilman in particular, coupled with his ongoing affair with Hayward’s mother, complicates the mission. Meanwhile, Gilman’s foster parents have coldly forbidden him to come home, which prompts a Social Services taskmaster (Tilda Swinton) to ferry out to New Penzance, too, and net the boy for the orphanage.
Moonrise Kingdom is Anderson’s most completely satisfying film since the one-two of Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, in part because it’s the perfect distillation of both. Like Rushmore, it’s about the infatuation and uncertainty of first love, as Gilman and Hayward work their way through a courtship that’s as sweetly naïve as it is devoid of technique. Their time at a beach inlet represents love at its most idyllic and untarnished—the isolated location is so pure, it doesn’t even have a name until they give it one. And yet, as with The Royal Tenenbaums, the disappointments of adulthood are equally apparent, clear in the loneliness that grips Norton and Willis, or the sour feelings that pervade a failed marriage. By contrasting young love with adult disillusionment, Anderson suggests a sad continuity that somehow doesn’t swamp the romantic optimism of Gilman and Hayward’s relationship. They’re runaways, after all. Maybe they’ll turn out different.
As always, Anderson expresses himself concisely: At 94 minutes, Moonrise Kingdom is dense in minute visual detail, hilarious deadpan jokes, and small moments that are rich in complexity. Just the line where Gilman finally reveals his feelings for Hayward is simultaneously funny, disarming, and a piercing reminder of where he’s from and where he’ll likely end up when the carriage turns back into a pumpkin. (Anderson’s films, for this reason, consistently improve on multiple viewings. There’s too much for the eye to take in.) Moonrise Kingdom goes deep into the storybook world of Anderson’s imagination, but not so far as to prevent complicated human emotions from intruding. Gilman and Hayward’s unnamed islet can’t remain a secret forever.