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The Case for: Moonrise Kingdom

by Marshall Flores

Part of an ongoing series at Awards Daily. More “The Case For” – you can pitch yours by writing us.

When it is all said and done, 2012 will go down as one of those film years where there is simply too much greatness, too many achievements and accomplishments, for AMPAS to adequately recognize. The Best Picture race is already shaping to be quite a battle royale, crowded with both surefire contenders and potential game changers. As a result, it will very easy (perhaps inevitable) for voters to forget about “smaller” indie gems like Beasts of the Southern Wild and Moonrise Kingdom: great movies that would be part of the Best Picture conversation in a weaker year. As it stands, given their early release date, Beasts and Moonrise are instead on the bubble, their ultimate Oscar prospects uncertain. Still, the case should, nay, must be made for these films.

Since making his debut with Bottle Rocket in 1996, very few directors working today have displayed a persistent penchant for quirky as Wes Anderson. With a storybook aesthetic that includes meticulous mise-en-scene, vintage costuming, and a muted color palette reminiscent of a faded photo, Anderson has crafted intimate films – whimsical worlds populated with oddball characters confronted by heavy subjects: alienation, family dysfunction, mortality. It’s a filmmaking identity that defies comparison with just about anything else coming out of mainstream cinema.

Sometimes, Anderson is able to find equilibrium between the surreal allegory and humanism that embeds throughout his work (The Royal Tenenbaums); other times, that balance isn’t there (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou). Though critics have lauded his films, AMPAS has only recognized Anderson twice, with nominations for The Royal Tenenbaums (original screenplay) and Fantastic Mr. Fox (animated feature). It’s a rather sparse Oscar history that voters would do well to enhance. This year, they will have a golden opportunity to do so, by recognizing Anderson’s best film, Moonrise Kingdom.

“We’re in love. We just want to be together. What’s wrong with that?”

Written by Anderson and Roman Coppola, Moonrise Kingdom takes place in 1965, where a couple of precocious 12-year olds, Suzy (Kara Hayward) and Sam (Jared Gilman) conspire to run away together. Both would easily qualify as refugees on the Island of Misfit Toys: Suzy is the black sheep of her family, so much so that her parents actually bought a how-to book about coping with a “troubled child;” she compares well to another troubled Anderson female, Margot Tenenbaum. Meanwhile, Sam is an orphaned, friendless Khaki Scout, spurned both by his troop and the foster parents who have taken him in.

In endearing fashion, these two young misfits find solace with each other though a pen pal courtship, leading to their decision to map out their own special place together as soul mates, secluded from a world that does not understand them. Gilman and Hayward make very impressive debuts here: both definitely fit the eccentric mold of Anderson’s previous film protagonists (e.g. Sam is a preteen pipe smoker, while Suzy is inseparable from her binoculars), but they remain very likable and appealing leads. The young lovebirds provide much of Moonrise’s emotional punch – a charming, bittersweet reflection on the joys of first love, brought to celluloid with a natural intimacy that is both mature and appropriately awkward, while never feeling saccharine or scandalous.

Sam and Suzy’s misadventures are interwoven with the often-humorous “one-step behind” efforts of adults to find them. A huge delight of Moonrise Kingdom is the top-notch, adult supporting ensemble (one of the many great film ensembles of 2012) that gives life to the existential, melancholic pain of adulthood – a common motif in Anderson’s films. The ensemble includes Bruce Willis as a local police head, Bill Murray and Frances McDormand as Suzy’s frustrated parents, and Edward Norton as a well-meaning but incompetent scoutmaster; Tilda Swinton, Jason Schwartzman, Bob Balaban, and Harvey Keitel also make appearances later in the film. The adult performances are uniformly good, but I must give a special mention to Willis. As Captain Sharp, the adult most sympathetic to Sam and Suzy’s plight, Willis delivers what is arguably the most sensitive role in his career.

Additionally, Anderson’s unique aesthetic has never been rendered so beautifully on screen as it is in Moonrise Kingdom. In conjunction with cinematographer Robert Yeoman, production designer Adam Stockhausen, and costume designer Kasia Walicka Maimone, Anderson effortlessly brings to life the idyllic feel of a summer’s romance in 1960’s New England. From the detailed uniforms and canvas tents of the Khaki Scouts, to the picturesque inlets and coves of New Penzance, they are many scenes and shots from Moonrise that could easily fit into a book of Norman Rockwell paintings. Precise but never too ornate, the visual appearance of the world of Moonrise Kingdom matches exceedingly well with the affectionate relationship between Sam and Suzy.

Finally, the music of Moonrise Kingdom neatly joins with the visuals and acting in completing a harmonic triad of whimsy. Music supervisor (and longtime Anderson collaborator) Randall Poster once again employs an eclectic assortment of 60’s era songs, but the bulk of the soundtrack is centered on recurring use of Benjaimin Britten’s “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.” which serves both as a musical analogy to Sam and Suzy’s lives as well as an amusing running gag throughout the film. Composer (and frequent Oscar nominee) Alexandre Desplat augments Britten’s piece with his original score, one of his three high profile scores of 2012. Although Desplat’s cues are minimalistic in nature at the beginning, they gradually accumulate into an enormous musical snowball that incorporates tubular bells and chants, creating a chaotic aural dimension that is befitting of Moonrise’s stormy climax.

With a 94% “freshness” on Rotten Tomatoes and an 84 Metacrtic score, Moonrise Kingdom is Wes Anderson’s most critically acclaimed film; the film also played well at the box office, with a domestic gross of $45 million. Still, because of the glut of great films released late this year, Moonrise is on the outside of the potential Best Picture lineup, trying to find a way to get in. I anticipate that Moonrise will get its fair share of mentions on the end-of-the-year Top 10 lists by critics, and should also win some screenplay awards from various critics groups. Mentions by the NBR and AFI Top 10 would also go a long way in enhancing Moonrise’s profile. But it needs champions, not only among the critics, but also guild members. The very best thing that could happen to boost Moonrise Kingdom’s Best Picture chances would be scoring a PGA nomination – something that will be very hard to come by.

In an ideal world where there is no limit on nominees, Moonrise would get deservingly nominated for the following categories:

Original Screenplay
Production Design
Costume Design

But as it is, Moonrise Kingdom, a career-best from a filmmaker who has made a career of making delightful flights of fancy, is on the Oscar bubble. Hopefully AMPAS voters take notice and give the recognition this great film certainly merits.