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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:

Picture
Director
Original Screenplay
Cinematography
Production Design
Costume Design
Score

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.

23 Comments on this Post

  1. I’m sorry Marshall but somebody’s got to say it: this is not even close to WA best. I love his movies but in this one, his “quirkiness” is getting to me. Sometimes his filmmaking (style) feels borderline pretentious. A la Tarantino with his films.

  2. While I wouldn’t say it’s his best film, it’s definitely one of the best of this year, despite the heightened quality being released in 2012. Other than The Fantastic Mr. Fox, it’s certainly Anderson’s most accessible film to date – Fox only such because it’s an animated film based on a children’s story.

    I agree wholeheartedly that it should be there in the conversation but, while I have always been a lover of Anderson’s work, it has such a rigid love/hate line. I don’t know any casual moviegoer who thinks any Wes Anderson film is “okay.” I think this is Anderson’s best chance to have more AMPAS members on the “love” side, but I would hope he never starts to make movies solely for award consideration. If being outside the fray produces beautiful stories like Moonrise Kingdom, then I’ll gladly sit back and watch from afar as another Best Picture Oscar gets handed to a period piece, a stuffy feel-good, or a re-tread of tired themes with no attempt at true originality.

  3. Profile photo of Sasha Stone

    Gotta side with Marshall on this one. Far and away Wes Anderson’s best.

  4. Rushmore and TRT are way better films than MK. When it ended I actually said… “So”? If you take the quirkiness out of this film, the story would not hold. R and TRT where way more interesting films based on their characters. Remember… Story first, style later.

  5. I don’t know, Sasha. I got bored to death watching it that I finally just did something else.

    I think his best work is The Royal Tenenbaums.

  6. No way this is Anderson’s best, though I admit to having only seen it once thus far. I would easily put Royal, Rushmore, Bottle Rocket, and possibly Fox above it. I still enjoyed it and will eventually own it (holding out for the inevitable Criterion edition), but I feel the movie is nevertheless plagued by many of the same tropes that began emerging in his 2nd and 3rd features and ultimately climaxing in The Life Aquatic, which, despite his charms, has to be considered his worst effort to date.

    The issues I’m referring to include some of the usual critical targets, like the extended slo-mo shots. However, my main problem is with the increasingly unbelievability of the dialogue and the increasingly predictable (and unnatural) way it’s delivered by the actors (few of whom are really allowed to portray real people with genuine emotions. And yes, much of this was present in Royal Tenenbaums, where I think the Wes Anderson style/formula reached its peak, before devolving into near self-parody. But the film had such rich characters and pulsated with such vibrancy and heart that one could overlook and even justify the unusual outfits, eccentric decor, etc. The performances were impeccable too.

    It’s just baffling to be that anyone could say Moonrise us his best, or that its quirks haven’t kept it from being as polarizing on Rotten Tomatoes as his greatest works. Still, having said all that, I really am eager to see it again. I’d hit up Redbox tonight if I weren’t going to a Mountain Goats concert. Maybe this weekend…

  7. 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).

    This is how I think it breaks down. I personally wouldn’t consider my self a Wes Anderson fan but I adore THE LIFE AQUATIC. (I actually tried to knit myself a Team Zissou hat but failed.) In fact that year all my Oscar hopes were on Willem Dafoe, who I thought was brilliant. So it’s a matter of personal taste, imo. That’s why I didn’t connect with MOONRISE KINGDOM. I didn’t connect with the kids. I also did not connect with THE ROYAL TENNENBAUMS but enjoyed THE DARJELLING UNLIMITED a great deal.

    Having said all that, and even though MOONRISE KINGDOM is not my cup of tea, I would rather see it nominated than LINCOLN and LIFE OF PI which are locks. At least MOONRISE KINGDOM is its own thing and Wes Anderson is telling an original story. I can’t take anything away from the ensemble cast either. I think they were the strongest part of the film. And for that reason alone it should go into the vault.

    Even though it doesn’t scrape the bottom of my top ten, I think I will feel bad if it doesn’t get nominated. Strictly because it’s dancing to its own beat.

  8. I really love Wes Andersons films but I seem to be one of few people that don´t like “The Royal Tenenbaums” that much. I just love Andersons weird sense of humour and so for me it is: the more the better. Probably that´s why I love “The Life Aquatic” so much although for most people it seems to be “too much”. But of course “Moonrise Kingdom” is one of his best films (if not THE best) and I really hope it will garner him a few OSCAR nominations.

  9. Antoinette

    My dumb fingers automatically typed “Unlimited”. *sigh*

  10. rodrigo jp

    Loved it! One of the year’s best! gotta get into the oscar race!

  11. i’m with marshall as well. and great choices for the categories… i even like bruce willis as a possible best supporting actor nominee if it were a perfect world

  12. I’ve always liked Anderson’s work a lot, but I found this to be, by far, my least favourite of his films. His movies have always existed in a sort of heightened-reality, but there are moments in Moonrise Kingdom that are so fantastical that they’re ridiculous.

    And, though I appreciated the performances, I found some of the supporting roles didn’t contribute much to the greater story. This is especially true of the affair between McDormand’s character and Willis’.

    Of course I respect the opinions of those who liked it, but I’m truly baffled that people consider this to be his best work.

    The reaction to Moonrise Kingdom reminds me, nearly exactly, of the reaction to Midnight in Paris last year. Both of which I thought were ultimately forgettable additions to their directors’ filmographies.

  13. I’m a huge WA fan (own all the Criterion editions of his films except, sadly, MK hasn’t gotten one). This is his third best film. The story just isn’t as good as Rushmore or The Royal Tenenbaums’ stories. And as great as his cast was in MK, it doesn’t top the cast of TRT. I’m glad he cast new faces for MK though. It was a great movie and great casting. It’s obviously his sweetest and most sentimental film and that’s what makes it stand out. It’ll finish in my top 10 this year.

  14. Do you have someone writing one of these for Take This Waltz? I might submit something.

  15. I don’t get why Anderson always has such troubles getting recognized. His movies do decent at box office and critics shower his film with great reviews. Yet when it comes time to vote, he is forgotten about.

    I really enjoyed Moonrise Kingdom though.

  16. Um, his films DON’T do well at the box office, until MK. Hmm, maybe that explains why it’s suddenly reasonable and safe to assume it will get some nominations…

  17. I haven’t yet decided whether or not I think that Moonrise is Anderson’s best, but it certainly sits with his other two high-water marks, TRT and Fantastic Mr. Fox, (I’ve always found Rushmore to be his most/only overrated film). I’m glad that you spotlighted Willis, who is having a hell of a comeback year that it seems most people aren’t paying attention to. Moonrise, along with Looper, are to me, his best performances since Pulp Fiction. I would love to see him sneak into the race, but it’s just not going to happen. I fully expect Moonrise to get a screenplay nomination and a picture nomination is not out of the question either, but the one award I really think it needs to nab a nomination for is Best Production Design. All of Anderson’s film have a remarkably unique aesthetic and have not been properly lauded. You can spot an Anderson film from a single frame. How many other filmmakers have this much control?

  18. rufussondheim

    Coincidentally, just watched this today. Really liked the first half, really didn’t like the second half. There was just too much commotion and it distracted from the endearing friendship of the two child leads. Would have preferred less Noises Off! and more Perks of Being a Wallflower (circa 1965)

    There’s a lot to admire here though and reading the summary above it almost convinced me I was wrong in my thoughts.

    But I’m not.

  19. rufussondheim

    And why doesn’t it surprise me that a Wes Anderson fan would like the Mountain Goats?

  20. Moonrise Kingdom is my 2nd favorite movie of the year so far, i agree with everything he wrote.

  21. I saw the movie a few weeks ago and I thought it was terrific but a little self-conscious. That being said, it was sweet, adorable, witty, heartwarming, and so much more. I can’t imagine it losing Best Original Screenplay at this point.

    And another question: can I do one of these articles for Skyfall? I loved that movie.

  22. I threw that Mountain Goats mention in because A) it’s true and B) I was going for the hipster self-jab. Still, nothing wrong with loving both (though Anderson’s hipster/twee leanings are part of what’s mildly soured him for me over thee years). Anyway, I’m off to read my daily dose of Pitchfork. Ta!

  23. K. Bowen

    Rushmore remains Anderson’s best, but Moonrise Kingdom is easily one of the best films of the year.

    It’s one of the best films from one of America’s best filmmakers. It should be nominated.

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