Get past the fonts (Futura bus logos! Everyone knows calligraphy!) and the ’60s pop songs, and you’ll find that the real recurring motif in Wes Anderson’s films is “Melancholy Childhoods of the Vietnam Era.” This auteur can’t get enough of sad kids wistfully reading novels with intricately painted dustjackets, listening to records on plastic tone-arm record players and dreaming of liberation.
Not for nothing does one of the flashbacks in “The Royal Tenenbaums” reference E.L. Konigsburg’s “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler,” a 1967 tale of two precocious but ignored youngsters who sneak away during a class field trip and manage to live undetected for several days in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
There’s an even stronger feeling of “Frankweiler” in the 1965-set “Moonrise Kingdom,” and while this movie won’t win over detractors who think that Anderson’s work is precious and fussy, the comedy does see the filmmaker firmly rooted in his comfort zone. Fans will be glad to hear this.
On a tiny island off the coast of New England, orphaned scout Sam (Jared Gilman) and troubled Suzy (Kara Hayward) bond instantly when they meet. (In true Anderson style, it’s backstage at a local performance of Benjamin Britten’s “Noye’s Fludde” -- he’s in a scout uniform, she’s dressed as a raven.) Sam has just been rejected by a new set of foster parents (after accidentally lighting their shed on fire) and Suzy’s misunderstood by her mom (Frances McDormand) and dad (Bill Murray), who are both lawyers, so the youngsters decide to run away.
“Moonrise Kingdom” often resembles a novelization of Godard’s “Pierrot le Fou” as conceived by storybook artist Richard Scarry: While the island’s authority figures (police captain Bruce Willis, scoutmaster Edward Norton) rally to track down the kids, the tweens fall in love like Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina, dancing to ye-ye singer Françoise Hardy as they stare at each other and at the camera tracking toward them for a close-up.
But this isn’t just the French New Wave reinterpreted for the Justin Bieber generation; Anderson is one of our most dryly funny filmmakers, and his screenplay, written with Roman Coppola, overflows with eccentric characters and minimalist-screwball ripostes. (“Was he a good dog?” asks Suzy about the scout troup’s terrier. “Who can say?” responds Sam.)
Visually, Anderson knows where to find the laughs in two kids hiking and camping while lugging around an enormous plastic suitcase; in fact, there are few directors out there who are as good at making inanimate objects (treehouses, lighthouses, ponchos, stationery, maps) humorous in and of themselves.
The cast, which also includes Tilda Swinton as a character known only as “Social Services,” has been instructed to play things as deadpan as possible. “Remember,” one imagines Anderson telling his players, “the last word out of your mouth should have the same inflection as the first.”
Like many of Anderson’s films, this one does start to lag a bit in the third act, but if there’s any real feeling of disappointment about this sweet and strange romance, it’s that it inevitably pales next to “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” That stop-motion animated feature felt like the apotheosis of the filmmaker, where his penchants for obsessive art direction and hyper-stylization were a perfect fit with the medium.
Still, as live-action Anderson goes, “Moonrise Kingdom” ranks among his best and certainly feels like an improvement over “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” (where the submarine was the most interesting character) and “The Darjeeling Limited” (which left me wanting the towels and the luggage but not caring about the people).
It’s an oddball love story made by a director with his own crazy affection for his job.