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Review: Moonrise Kingdom

Wes Anderson is out in the open and back on form, writes Ryan Gilbey.

No evolutionary timeline is necessary to illustrate the career of Wes Anderson. His sensibility (bittersweet, archaic) and visual style (fastidious, enamoured with tableaux and cross- sections) are unusual in being intact from his earliest films, Bottle Rocket and Rushmore. His heroes have always been romantic misfits with OCD tendencies and absent or unreliable parents; his outlook steeped in hipster chic. Even Fantastic Mr Fox, a stop-motion animation adapted from the book by Roald Dahl, could not evict the director from his comfort zone, a genre we might call “melanchomedy”.

The only thing more repetitious than the films is the critic who complains about how repetitious they are. Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson’s seventh picture, bears his unmistakable imprint, from the candy-coloured production design to the off-the-beaten-soundtrack (lashings of Britten, a soupçon of Françoise Hardy). But it is literally and figuratively a breath of fresh air, benefiting from the director’s decision to get out of the house (The Royal Tenenbaums), or off the boat (The Life Aquatic) or train (The Darjeeling Limited). The great outdoors doesn’t adhere to storyboards; mist suspended over a field won’t respond to direction.

On an island off the coast of New England in 1965, an orphaned Boy Scout, Sam Shakusksy (Jared Gilman), falls into an amorous fascination with Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) after stumbling upon her in a church production of Britten’s Noye’s Fludde. They make a pact to run away. Being only 12 years old, there are adults at their heels – Suzy’s weary parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), a defeated sheriff (Bruce Willis) and a twitchy scout master (Edward Norton). Sam’s flight enables an escape-movie gag too glorious to spoil here, not least because it represents an uncommon burst of outright comedy in a film teetering on the verge of being amusing. Moonrise Kingdom is laugh-inside funny; it’s smile-a-minute stuff.

Among the adult performers, it is Bob Balaban, as the narrator, who is the closest thing to a comic marvel; his skew-whiff posture alone is a visual punchline. But there is a fatigued quality to the adult cast members that goes beyond their characters’ mid-life funk. The children, on the other hand, prove that inexperience can be liberating. As Sam, Gilman offers an endless supply of quizzical reactions and chewy line-readings. His tortoise-like appearance clashes nicely with his hare-like mania: no romantic ever put this much map-making and schedule-writing into the business of eloping. Suzy seems baffled as well as bowled over by him, despite being no less eccentric. (She never goes anywhere without binoculars, showing her emotional estrangement.) Hayward’s face is a picture of poise and wisdom that makes natural her transformation into a temporary Wendy, with Sam and fellow scouts her adoring Lost Boys.

The geek-meets-freak romance is no more convincing than it was in Submarine, 2010’s British cover version of Anderson’s work, but I don’t think it’s meant to be. Moonrise Kingdom is more about imagination than love and how the marginalised find sanctuary there. Repeatedly the film conjures visual representations of its young heroes’ turbulent thoughts. A child somersaults on a trampoline while Sam and Suzy contemplate marriage; the sky is lit by fireworks and shaken by a violent storm; an intricate treehouse wobbles at the top of a pole taller than a redwood; Sam’s mental state after being rejected by his foster parents is mirrored in the close-up of an ocean map where unmoored co-ordinates drift disconsolately in blue space.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Bell Jar, with their nightmare visions of electro-convulsive therapy, were published several years before the action of Moonrise Kingdom takes place, which puts into context the adults’ fears that Sam will have his individuality zapped out of him should he fall into the hands of social services. (There’s a harbinger of this when the lad takes a lightning bolt to the head, though it causes him nothing more severe than a cartoon-style blackened face.) It’s a pleasing coincidence that this director has shaken off some of his own inhibitions to make a film celebrating the boundless imagination. It’s a small but meticulous work; even when Anderson is doodling, he does it with a Montblanc pen.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Who speaks for British Jews?