In 'Moonrise Kingdom', Reality Is Depicted by Escape From Reality

by Christopher Forsley

26 October 2015

Wes Anderson’s movies do a better job at expressing and exploring what it means to be human than many of the so-called realistic movies that are too often presumed to have more depth.
 
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Moonrise Kingdom

Director: Wes Anderson
Cast: Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward, Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Fances McDormand, Jason Schwartzman, Bob Balaban, Harvey Keitel

US theatrical: 22 Sep 2015

The Criterion Collection’s release of Moonrise Kingdom (2012) ranks among the most beautiful DVD productions in existence. Its two discs are secured by a slipcase decorated with a enchanting photo spread of the mythical cove the film is named after, and there’s also a booklet included that features an essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien and a interesting selection of reviews written by children viewers of the film.

It’s the details, however, such as Khaki scout badges pasted atop the disks, scans of the main character’s artwork, and photos of other oddities from the film’s world, and the ephemera,such as a double-sided map of New Penzance Island, an authentic looking flyer from the featured play, and a postcard from the island, that really lifts this DVD production above the disposable masses and into the heavens where collectables are found. 

Throw in its restored 2K digital transfer, its splendid audio commentary with Wes Anderson, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Jason Schwartzman, and Roman Coppola, a selection of animated storyboard sequences, an array of interviews with cast and crew, an insightful making-of documentary, Norton’s home movies from the set, and some never before seen behind-the-scenes, special effects, audition, and test footage, and this Criterion release becomes a must-own product for any cinephile and a sort of holy shrine for Wes Anderson fans.

Some of you may wonder if Anderson’s movies deserve Criterion releases, let alone such an elaborate offering, but you’ll only wonder that if you’re one of his haters who accuse him of making shallow movies about one-dimensional dolls in unrealistic doll houses. There’s no denying that his movies are stylized and that his characters and stories exist in an alternate, whimsical reality where many of the unpleasantries of our real world—like bad fashion tends, cookie cutter housing developments, and boring people—don’t exist. But to believe that his movies are shallow is ridiculous.

If you ask me, Anderson’s movies do a better job at expressing and exploring what it means to be human than many of the so-called realistic movies that are too often presumed to have more depth. Most of these ‘realistic’ movies are just as removed from reality as even the most fantastic of Anderson’s films, but their directors and actors don’t believe it. They’re like those English Bulldog owners who think that creature named Winston who sleeps at the foot of their bed is a dog. Even if Winston occasionally barks and someday learns to fetch, he’ll always be an English Bulldog, which, regardless of their charisma, have had the dog in them bred out long, long ago.

Digressions aside, my point is that a movie can never, no matter how hard its creators try, reproduce reality. Just as English Bulldogs have lost the majority of their canine characteristics, movies lose their realism as soon as an actor memorizes a line, a director calls cut, a cinematographer manipulates the light, or an editor rearranges a sequence. The movies we consider realistic today will look like stylized period pieces a few decades from now. What we consider a realistic movie is usually nothing more than a movie made in a particular style that is in vogue at a particular time.

Since so-called realistic movies are just as removed from reality as the most stylized movies, the argument that Anderson’s films are shallow because of his whimsical leanings and irrelevance to realism is, like I said, ridiculous. Style and substance have nothing to do with each other. It doesn’t matter what approach a filmmaker takes with a movie, what matters is the effect the movie has on its viewers. All of Anderson’s work deeply effects this viewer, and probably any viewer who doesn’t have set rules about what a movie should be, and what separates the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Bottle Rocket (1996) depicts the struggles of aimless young adults as they try to give their lives meaning with an honesty that wins you over regardless of whether or not you can relate. Rushmore (1998) explores with a refreshing originality how one’s achievements and ambition is often used to mask one’s pain and deficiencies. With The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), his masterpiece, Anderson tells an incredibly entertaining and insightful story about the struggles, eccentricities, and dysfunctions of a family of high-society geniuses who must learn to embrace the ties that bind them without getting strangled by them.

Then there’s Life Aquatic (2004), a comeback tale of a burned-out, middle-aged oceanic explorer trying to rekindle his passion for the sea, and Darjeeling Limited (2007) which takes a deep look at the bonds of brotherhood. There’s also the stop-motion, hyper-paced children’s animation, Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), which persuasively promotes acceptance and community, and his newest, The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), which takes us on a sprawling, emotionally-layered adventure about the potency of memories that is impossible to forget. 

All these films, in spite of the lighthearted humor and dreamlike designs that drip from their every frame, dig deep into what it means to be human. But it’s Moonrise Kingdom (2012) that, more than any of Anderson’s movies, proves to us how his boundless imagination and stubborn vision can tell highly stylized stories that are as emotionally potent and unblushingly truthful as anything that has ever been put on film.

Taking place on the sparsely populated fictional New England coastal island of New Penzance, Moonrise Kingdom is set during the summer of 1965. Two 12-year-olds, Sam and Suzy, played by first time child actors Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, fall in love via written correspondence and then run away together into the island’s wilderness. While most of the island’s population is made-up of adolescent Khaki scouts, there are a handful of adults who act as flawed authority figures. There’s Police Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton), and Suzy’s lawyer parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), as well as Social Services (Tilda Swinton), Cousin Ben (Jason Schwartzman), The Narrator (Bob Balaban), and Commander Pierce (Harvey Keitel). It’s these authority figures who try to find Sam and Suzy before an incoming hurricane arrives to wreak havoc on the island. 

In many ways, Moonrise Kingdom is a children’s adventure story in the tradition of Mark Twain, but while Twain uses the characters of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn to look at everything from race to religion, Anderson uses the characters of Sam and Suzy to look almost exclusively at what it means to be a child. To do this, he contrasts their optimism and sense of imagination with the depressing, hopeless reality of the adults in their lives. Suzy’s parents are in a loveless marriage, Captain Sharp is a lonely bachelor, and Master Ward uses his status as a Khaki scout leader to escape from his reality as a math teacher.

Although both Sam and Suzy are peerless outcasts, their attempted escape represents their hope in a future of their own making. It’s a future that they, even it’s only for a short time, are able to make a reality once they reach their destination: the New Penzance island cove they call Moonrise Kingdom.

Moonrise Kingdom

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