‘Moonrise Kingdom’: A beautiful kingdom of oddballs | 2½ stars

Quirky characters and gorgeous scenes almost make up for a story that rises and then falls.

06/28/2012 1:00 PM

05/16/2014 6:52 PM

Sam (Jared Gilman) is a reluctant member of the Khaki Scouts. He is nevertheless an excellent outdoorsman, always decked out in a coonskin cap and chewing on a corncob pipe.

Suzy (Kara Hayward) is more of an artsy, literate type. But she has a flair for fashion, sporting a pink minidress, white knee-high socks and blue eye shadow.

They are both 12 years old.

They have just run away together.

That’s the setup for the latest effort by love-him-or-hate-him filmmaker Wes Anderson. Like his other live-action films, “Moonrise Kingdom” delivers plenty of quirky characters, obsessive visuals and a third act that falls apart. But this Palme d’Or nominee from Cannes displays more humanity, thanks to the quaint young love.

“Moonrise Kingdom” showcases how the preteen couple’s escape brings the community of (fictional) New Penzance Island together in 1965.

First to notice a child gone missing is Scoutmaster Ward (Edward Norton). Despite Sam being the “least popular scout in the troop by a significant margin,” the capable Ward organizes the remaining Khaki boys into a search party.

Suzy’s family leans toward the panicky side. Her dad, Walt (Bill Murray), gets incensed: “Our daughter has been abducted by one of these beige lunatics.” Her mother, Laura (Frances McDormand), recruits the help of Police Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), with whom she is having an affair.

The story (written by Anderson and Roman Coppola) offers no more of a traditional narrative than the filmmaker’s overrated previous efforts “The Royal Tenenbaums” or “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou.” His characters don’t quite exist in the real world or display established human emotions. (In a scene where the troop’s beloved pet terrier is grotesquely killed, all the kids react as if they had just dropped a paperclip.)

Ironic hipsterism works best in small doses, and for the first hour “Moonrise Kingdom” is downright delightful. But eventually Anderson’s penchant for style over soul becomes draining. This leads to scenes of utter nonsense, with Sam being struck by lightning and rival scouts chasing him en masse across an open field in the Benny Hill tradition.

Fortunately, there’s one standout aspect about Anderson that is hard to dispute: The man knows how to fill a frame. Not since Stanley Kubrick has a director proved more obsessive about composition. Every move of his lateral-tracking camera and element of art direction/production design reveals a hypnotic palette of colors and atmosphere.

Anderson’s calculated use of imagery often overshadows his actors. Yet he seems to be particularly interested in his young leads this time. The film cherishes lingering close-ups of Sam (who looks a bit like Edward Furlong circa “Terminator 2”) and Suzy (dolled up in pseudo-Swinging London gear). Both actors make their movie debuts here, and they rarely disappoint.

In their best scene, they seek solace in a secluded cove — a locale Sam dubs Moonrise Kingdom. They share a dance, a kiss and some other stuff. It’s a melancholy clash of innocence vs. maturity, and of fleeting opportunity that adults will inevitably quash. But it’s also played by Anderson at a distance. Instead of letting the scene resonate emotionally, he can’t help but smirk at it as if crafting a version of “The Blue Lagoon” for people who listen to Arcade Fire.

The frustrating Anderson is improving, and he may one day shed the collegiate hipster aura that infuses his work. As his precocious young characters discover in “Moonrise Kingdom,” growing up is inescapable.

What others are saying

• Rafer Guzman, Newsday:

“Though undeniably smart and charming, ‘Moonrise Kingdom’ loves itself the way the callow Holden Caulfield loves himself: unconditionally. J.D. Salinger understood the problem with that. Wes Anderson may not.”

• Dana Stevens, Slate: “

A gorgeously shot, ingeniously crafted, über-Andersonian bonbon that, even in its most irritatingly whimsical moments, remains an effective deliverer of cinematic pleasure. (Unless you really hate Wes Anderson, in which case I bet it would be one of his funnest movies to mock.)”

• Amy Biancolli, Houston Chronicle: “The formality of ‘Moonrise Kingdom’ — the orderly structure and dreamlike perfection of it all — is as poetic as any film I’ve seen this year.”

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