Even with a cast comprised of big-name actors like Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton, and Bruce Willis, the heart of Wes Anderson's opening night film Moonrise Kingdom is the budding relationship between two child actors and newcomers (Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward). But while the two have a remarkable chemistry on screen, it is the director's usual quirky style and staccato filmic rhythm that prevents the film from actually having a heart. As viewers we're supposed to connect with these two teenagers, because really, who hasn't experienced puppy love at that age? Yet Anderson's stylistic approach creates a certain detachment that caused the supposedly dramatic finale to completely leave me cold.
The film is set on the fictional New England island of New Penzance, and the year is 1965. As with any Wes Anderson world, everything and everyone on the island is slightly off. As said, the story revolves around the romance of Sam and Suzy, two 12-year-olds who decide to run away from home together because they feel like outsiders within their own families. And because they love each other, of course, in that way only 12-year-olds can love each other. As Sam is a member of a boy scout troop, he knows quite a bit about surviving in the wilderness, so at first all goes well and they create their own idyllic haven in a cove (to which the title refers, although this only becomes clear in the last shot). However, a search-and-rescue operation is started by the girl's parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand, in a wonderful pairing), helped by what seems to be the island's only member of law enforcement (Bruce Willis, who also has an affair with McDormand, although this plot strand goes nowhere), as well as the troop of boy scouts led by Edward Norton. The kids are quickly found and separated, but young love cannot be contained, and after a sequence reminiscent of films like Escape From Alcatraz, the second act basically is repeated in the final one, only with more mayhem, louder music (the score is really overbearing), and some terrible visual effects. All of this intermittently explained by a narrator (Bob Balaban) who is actually doing his narration on-screen, because… well, probably because this is a Wes Anderson film.
Now, the film is at times quite entertaining, with the director's flair for visual gags (albeit probably requiring a specific sense of humor) providing more than enough funny moments, even if they're not of the 'ha-ha' variety. Visually, the film is very strong, with a penchant for symmetry that doesn't have much bearing on the underlying themes, but at least pleases the eye, helped by some fabulous art direction (always a strong suit in a Wes Anderson film). The actors have great fun with all the silliness as well, relaying Anderson's off-kilter dialogue with a deadpan delivery, the strongest being Murray and McDormand, and Balaban in his odd role as the narrator. But it must be said that the young Kara Hayward (Odd sidenote: the girl looks like a younger sister of Lana Del Rey, who actually walked the red carpet for no apparent reason. Or maybe that was the reason?) is an absolute attention magnet whenever she is on screen, stealing scenes left and right from her far more experienced co-stars.
So, overall there is much to like, but the problem is that Anderson's approach doesn't lend itself to the story. Where he could get away with this in something like The Royal Tenenbaums, it's just too artificial to let any emotion seep into a tale that in essence relies on emotion. It is never clear why these kids are in love, or even why they like each other. One could argue that they just think they're in love, but the connection between the two still relies on a single scene which gives no argument as to why they share a bond. The style overtakes the substance, even though there is not much substance to speak of. The film is obviously made with care, but why? If it was just to tell this whimsical and somewhat magical tale of two kids on the run, I think that with all its quirks, the film would have worked much better as a short story or novel, since much of it comes down to the imagination of the viewers and their suspension of disbelief in Anderson's world. The film is certainly enjoyable, but feels too much like an exercise in style to actually make the viewer care about its characters.