People tend to have strong opinions about movies by director Wes Anderson. From his breakthrough second feature Rushmore to the animated brilliance of his last film, 2009's Fantastic Mr. Fox, the Texas native has made a career of creating beautifully detailed but entirely artificial worlds on screen. It's not that traditional cinematic "realism" is an afterthought for Anderson — it's more like completely off the table. His movies celebrate the eccentricities of mostly young and melancholy characters, often as they contend with even quirkier members of their own families. It all builds to a cynicism-free poignancy seldom seen in independent films. But Anderson's heavily mannered style is not for everyone.
And there's another problem: Anderson's movies don't always work. Films like The Darjeeling Limited and The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou overflow with the director's trademark whimsical characters and settings, but after strong starts find themselves all dressed up with nowhere to go. Moonrise Kingdom leaves the missteps behind with a consistently funny and imaginative tale of first love between precocious 12-year-olds that feels genuine instead of merely clever.
Moonrise Kingdom takes us to a small island off the coast of New England in the summer of 1965. Sam (Jared Gilman) is an ace Khaki Scout and secret orphan who has no chance of fitting in with his far more conventional peers. Suzy (Kara Hayward) has caring but depressed parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) and recently discovered a book on top of the refrigerator titled Coping With the Very Troubled Child. Sam and Suzy identify each other as kindred spirits in the first of several lightning strikes that punctuate the movie. They conspire to run away into the wilderness together causing great distress for earnest Khaki Scout master Ward (Edward Norton) and sad-sack police Capt. Sharp (Bruce Willis), especially since a historic hurricane is looming.
It must not have been easy to evoke the overwhelming emotions of pre-teens in a more innocent time without also generating movie-crushing sentiment and nostalgia. Moonrise Kingdom conjures that time of life like it was yesterday. Norton and Willis rise to the occasion with what is their most inspired work in years. The movie is divided into two halves of roughly equal length, before and after the initial runaways-in-peril scenario is resolved. The second half might have fallen flat in the manner of some previous Anderson films. But this time he's got a story to tell. Now in his forties, Anderson has found a clear voice and sense of purpose to match his quirky charm and meticulous craftsmanship. It's easy to have a strong opinion about that. — KEN KORMAN