From the first moments of the opening credits, Moonrise Kingdom stands out as an absolute visual delight. Director Wes Anderson brings his signature aesthetic vision, creating a setting full of warm color palettes, symmetry, and a myriad of small details and flourishes sure to reward multiple viewings. But for crafting such a rich, appealing world, the film struggles to populate that world to an equally successful measure. Moonrise Kingdom is an artistic, easily watchable film, but its plot and characters lack the substance needed to elevate it above being just entertainment.
Moonrise Kingdom happily participates in the great American film tradition of romanticizing the past. Set in the summer of 1965 on a small (fictional) New England island, the film is replete with nostalgia for “simpler” times. Its central storyline concerns the budding romance between two young teenagers, Sam and Suzy, following them as they run away from home and engage in a picturesque series of traditional summer pastimes – swimming in the ocean, exploring the woods, and dancing with endearing awkwardness for the first time on an empty beach. Meanwhile, the lives of the island’s adults intersect and influence each other in ways both humorous and serious as they attempt to recover the escaped children, and many revelations are to be had along the way.
It is these adult characters who draw attention to one of Moonrise Kingdom’s main weaknesses – an inability to commit to a genre. The film’s simplistic plot makes it predisposed to light-hearted comedy, a mode that it comfortably inhabits for much of the run time. But it also makes forays into drama, almost all of which fall flat. Many characters profess unhappiness, but their stiff affects and hyper-stylized performances make these emotional claims unconvincing and awkward. Other decisions meant to lend weight to the film are similarly misjudged, such as the subplot of Suzy’s mother’s affair. Rather than create a juxtaposition between child and adult problems – their likely intended aim – they simply feel out of place.
The scope of Moonrise Kingdom is not overambitious. It is content to tell a contained, well-tread story, one spanning only three days of time. But despite this modest framework, the film struggles to maintain focus and avoid over-embellishment. While not a significant distraction, at times it definitely suffers from too many moving parts. Quirky secondary characters, such as a narrator who later becomes directly involved in the story and an idiosyncratic bureaucrat known only as “Social Services” enter and exit the narrative whenever it is convenient, and remain underdeveloped as a result. The elaborate interior sets that have become a trademark of Anderson’s are sometimes simply overcrowded and busy, making it difficult for the viewer to take everything in.
In contrast to busy indoor scenes, the film’s outdoor cinematography constitutes one of its major strengths. The lighting is a perfect fit for Moonrise Kingdom’s general aesthetic, soft and delicately aged as though an antique camera were really used; paradoxically, while the film’s vintage effect appears effortless onscreen, it in fact owes much to skillfully subtle modern editing techniques and sophisticated technology. The setting itself is charming, composed mainly of pristine forests and coasts, and the full beauty of the environment is brought out by varied camera techniques. Long distance shots, unconventional angles, and first person perspectives appear regularly throughout the film. It is in these nature scenes that the film’s nostalgia is most apt, tapping into the ideal of what a childhood summer is meant to be like.
Moonrise Kingdom’s relationship with artificiality is ultimately an uneasy one. In the service of its lofty aesthetic goals, the film treats its characters much like another set of props, muting realistic emotion in favor of an empty pathos too structured and controlled to feel truly resonant. Meticulous design and attention to fine detail is admirable on an artistic level, but has a more stifling effect on the film as a whole, preventing it from expanding in more natural, spontaneous directions. The tensionthat results from the film’s highly cultivated style is amplified by the contrast presented by its exterior scenes, whose wild vistas provide occasional glimpses of a more relaxed, organic aesthetic vision that the film might have pursued.
Whenever Moonrise Kingdom remains within its original premise – a sweet summer adventure – it always delivers, so viewers interested in such a film can expect to be pleased. The film’s creative aesthetic and cinematography are also sure to appeal to artistic viewers. Other elements of the film may not land as well, but they do not detract from the general viewing experience in an overwhelming way. The film’s ending may feel too abrupt for some viewers, relying on some deus ex machina; however, this is another minor fault that is fairly easy to look beyond. In spite of its missteps, Moonrise Kingdom is overall a successful, enjoyable film, and makes for excellent comfort viewing on a cold winter day.