Wes Anderson’s most recent movies—with the exception of the animated “Fantastic Mr. Fox”—have been pretty awful. “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” was intensely annoying, and “The Darjeeling Express” even worse. But he rebounds handsomely with “Moonrise Kingdom,” in which he applies his characteristically offbeat, determinedly synthetic style to a thoroughly charming tale of adolescent infatuation.
The kids in question are Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman), an owlish Khaki Scout who defects from his troop while it’s ensconced at Camp Ivanhoe on picturesque New Penzance Island, off the New England coast, in 1965, and Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward), who lives with her parents and younger brothers in a remote house nearby. The two had met sometime earlier during a performance of Benjamin Britten’s parable “Noye’s Fludde” at the local church. The unlikely duo—he a dour, fuzzy-haired orphan and she a beautiful but unhappy lass—have corresponded since, and plan on spending a week at an isolated cove, enjoying one another’s company.
They’re soon being pursued by a raft of people—Sam’s troop leader, earnest, boyish Scoutmaster Ward (Edward Norton), along with his fellow scouts, who had largely ostracized him; the local lawman, soft-spoken, methodical Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis); and Mr. and Mrs. Bishop (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), a couple of lawyers who have peculiar parenting skills and aren’t terribly happy together, especially since she’s carrying on an affair with Sharp. Eventually, however, the other boys have a change of heart and liberate both Sam and Suzy, whose idyll has been broken up by the authorities (including a stern Social Services worker played by Tilda Swinton, who intends placing Sam in an orphanage). They escorting the two to the chief scout fort presided over by the group’s irascible leader (Harvey Keitel), where they get help from the scalawag cousin of one of them, Ben (Jason Schwartzman), who even obligingly marries the duo. But a fierce storm, and ensuing flood, described for us by a local expert (Bob Balaban) who appears periodically to offer learned after-the-fact explanations, drives everyone to the same church where the youthful couple had first met for a splashy but happy finish.
There’s nothing remotely realistic about “Moonrise Kingdom.” Even the outdoor locations don’t look naturalistic, and everything man-made—the Bishops’ cavernous house, the Scout camps, Sam’s tent, the lagoon where he and Suzy set up paradise, the items they bring along with them (including the gorgeous covers of her books)—are deliberately and lusciously artificial. That goes for the performances, too. Gilman and Hayward are directed to deliver their lines in deadpan tones with hardly a hint of expression, and the same goes for the adults (though Murray and McDormand are given a bit more leeway to hit their comic points). Even Keitel forgoes his usual exuberance for something more measured, and Swinton is so buttoned-down as to be nearly unrecognizable.
But that’s all of a piece with Anderson’s approach, which is unquestionably affected but in this case dovetails perfectly with the stylized visuals—abetted by Adam Stockhausen’s production design, Gerald Sullivan’s art direction, Kris Moran’s set decoration, and Kasia Walicka Maimone’s costumes, all lovingly captured in Robert Yeoman’s cinematography. The background score accentuates the effect, with Alexandre Desplat’s original cuts (and the scouts’ march by Mark Mothersbaugh) joined by excerpts from other works, mostly notably ones by Britten (not only “Fludde” but the “Young Person’s Guide” and the “Simple Symphony”).
An occasional misstep breaks the mood of Anderson’s film—the most notable being the death of a dog, which comes across as an unnecessarily dark moment that must be more unpleasant than intended. But otherwise this is a gossamer fable of adolescent romance, played out with the cheekily whimsical, visually delicious style for which Anderson is famous. If you’re not totally put off by its undeniably precious tone, you should enjoy it immensely.