There are movies we love and then there are movies we want to inhabit. Certain special films contain diegetic universes so immersive, so rich and seductively real, that the desire to be consumed and placed into their little worlds is a constant from viewer to viewer. Wes Anderson’s great fable of love and loss Moonrise Kingdom plays out on an exemplar of these fantasy-stirring paradises, the fictitious northeastern island of New Penzance. As Bob Balaban’s narrator helpfully informs the camera at the film’s outset, it numbers a paltry 16 miles across and has no roads, only dirt trails and foot-paths. Production design fetishist that he is, Anderson packs the relatively small island with exhaustive detail, having given thought to its every eccentric inhabitant, every quaintly just-so building, every goddamn rock and tree. Just when it couldn’t get any more real, the handsome new Criterion release includes a lovingly charted map of the island. Look closely — just off the western coast of New Penzance sit a pair of outcroppings called Fidelity Island and Honesty Rock. It could not be any more perfect.
This aesthetic of overpowering coziness defines Moonrise Kingdom as a holistic work, if not Anderson as a filmmaker. Everything is in its right place under Anderson’s orderly vision, which extends to the rigorously symmetrical framing that dominates the director’s visual sensibility. But on a more primal level, he seizes on an impulse for coziness as a response to threats from the outside world. Whether that means the tempestuous climate of New Penzance, the dark confusion of youth, or the metastasizing regrets of middle age, the film provides a remedy through the allure of safety, isolation, and warmth.
Young lovers Suzy Bishop (a prodigious Kara Hayward) and Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) bust out of their respective humdrum lives to go in search of this elusive coziness with and within one another. The smartly pitched tent that shields them from the elements as they sleep the innocent slumber of first love provides a perfect shorthand for Anderson’s specific strain of melancholic sentimentality. The world’s a big stormy place, and our only hope at even temporary comfort is the opportunity to hide away with a loved one, if only for a moment. But the outer world pulls and pulls at such sanctuaries until they break apart. These encroaching forces take many forms over the course of the film: domineering scout masters played by Edward Norton and Harvey Keitel, a humorless Social Services agent (Tilda Swinton, minor but flawless), or a pair of parents with more than enough of their own problems to figure out before they can begin to understand why their daughter’s so full of resentment and rage. Anderson’s broadest irony lies in the juxtaposition of the outsized maturity of his children with the arrested emotional development of his adults. In other words, it’s an adult’s movie seen through the eyes of a kid.
The structural intricacies of Grand Budapest Hotel may have wowed some, but the potent undercurrent of sadness and vulnerability in Moonrise Kingdom elevate it to the list of Anderson’s all-time masterworks. It’s about being dry and safe while pounding rain drenches everything outside, cherishing privacy and intimacy for as long as you can before they’re wrested from you. Like a treehouse built precariously atop a teetering trunk, Moonrise Kingdom balances the joy of youth with the terrible understanding that it can’t last forever.
The transfer is a thing of wonder, not only sharpening the definition on each frame to bring out previously unnoticed details of the fabrics on the Khaki Scouts’ uniforms (such things matter when dealing with meticulousness on Anderson’s level), but also capturing the vibrant manipulations of color. The filmmaker liberally warped the filter on many scenes, resulting in unnaturally beautiful compositions of pure yellow or orange. Beyond cementing the autumnal vibe, Criterion’s transfer also enables the audio track to achieve its full potential of excellence, the majestic sweep of Alexandre Desplat’s baroque score as well as soundtrack cuts from Francoise Hardy and the great biblical opera Noye’s Fludde springing to life in glorious crispness.
The extras tie the whole package together, not just stylistically but thematically. Tucked in the disc case are a postcard bearing a sprightly photograph of the assembled cast, tastefully labelled with their character names; a fold-out map of New Penzance with a larger-view perspective of St. Jack Wood Island on the flip side; and the booklet has been modeled after an issue of scout’s publication Indian Corn. It’s not just a cute way of branding the standard booklet, either. The Criterion team wrangled a group of actual children to provide their thoughts on the film, and the simplicity compounded by emotional directness captures the spirit of the film more comprehensively than the included academic essays. (A highlight: “It’s Not Realistic But It Looks Good” by young Costa Demy.)
2 thoughts on ““Moonrise Kingdom” Charts Wes Anderson’s Cozy World”
Very good review. Well done.