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Moonrise Kingdom: A review from someone who’s been to the movies four times in five years

Since having children, I don’t go to the movies much anymore (see post title). Part of it is that when we get a sitter, I’d rather go out to dinner with friends. Part of it is that I prefer TV. You know, classy, movie-ish TV like Downton Abbey, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and America’s Next Top Model. And don’t you wish you knew what the other three movies I’ve actually bothered to see in the theatre have been? Maybe I’ll tell you, maybe not.

It was our wedding anniversary on Saturday, so we thought dinner and the new Wes Anderson movie would be a novel way to celebrate. We went to the theatre in Cambridge, took our seats, and checked out the latest trends in eyeglasses: professorial, European, and hipster. Oh, and here’s another reason I’m not so keen on the movies: I’m short. The woman in front of me had this gigantic bun piled cockeyed on top of her head, and I spent the whole time bobbing and weaving around this big beehive.

When Rushmore came out, I placed it firmly in my top five favorite movies ever. I was not sick of Jason Schwartzman’s schtick yet, and I found the whole thing quirky, charming, and unlike anything I’d ever seen. I was anxious to see The Royal Tenenbaums and was slightly less enchanted. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou? The Darjeeling Limited? And now Moonrise Kingdom? I’ve been trying to figure out why I’ve fallen out of love with Wes Anderson for a while. I was particularly drawn to his newest movie by the premise: two children who fall in love and run away together on an island off the coast of Maine. I was equally drawn to it by the font Anderson chose for the movie poster…and that’s the problem.

I love fonts, I admire good design, and I really look forward to these elements of Wes Anderson movies; it’s a large part of why I’ve enjoyed them. But (and I know I’m not the first person to say this) Anderson places so much emphasis on these elements that he himself becomes a character, almost the star of his own movies, while the emotional lives of the onscreen characters become secondary. If he could do both design and storytelling equally well, I wouldn’t have a problem with it. But as I watch, I can sense him in each scene, just out of shot, consulting earnestly about where to place each carefully-chosen prop, or finding the perfect, quaintest location to occupy three seconds of film. Meanwhile, the characters are hastily drawn, and the plot is uneven. And that, to me, is missing the point of the the film watching experience. At the end, I feel that Anderson probably had a lot of fun, but me? I felt a bit left out.

This was made particularly clear at the last moment of Moonrise Kingdom. We’ve just said good-bye to the characters. There is a shot of the beach where the children, Suzy and Sam, have set up their campsite/hideway; then the fabulous font proclaims “For Juman” in the corner of the screen, and cut to the credits. And with that dedication, I snapped out of whatever trance had taken hold of me while watching the film, and I was reminded that the movie was about Wes Anderson, not Suzy and Sam. He ended with the focus squarely on himself with that dedication to his partner (I googled “Juman” to confirm this). At that, we got up and ran for the exit so we could hurry home and pay the babysitter.

Maybe I missed some stuff behind the hairdo of the lady in front of me, but the same thing goes for the beginning of the film. Anderson goes to great pains to draw viewers in with these elaborate, diorama-like settings he creates; in Moonrise Kingdom, the camera moves from room to room in this house on the island of New Penzance where the Bishop family lives. We notice each chair, record player, toy, placed just so. We focus on them as we hunt for the characters as they move about the house. The people are hard to find, could it be a metaphor? Perhaps??? Meanwhile, two great actors, Bill Murray and Frances McDormand, are not given very much to do; working within the confines of the mannerisms and costumes Anderson has given them, they don’t have much room to confront their conflicts, like infidelity, bitterness, and a daughter who is “troubled,” yet it’s not clear why.

It’s like looking in a dollhouse. And, like playing with dolls, I felt that I had to fill in a lot of the story for myself. I thought the two actors who played Suzy and Sam were the best part of the movie; though they were mounted like butterflies, they were so natural and sympathetic. They were the source of warmth in a pretty cold movie. But to get at that warmth, I needed to impose myself in the movie, just like Anderson imposed himself in the sets, to imagine those children as my own: how would I feel about them, how would I react if I were put into the just-so shoes of the adults in the movies? So I imagined my own C growing up, having his own inner life, like these children at age 12: having his own first big love story, his first flush of teenaged angst. And because I empathized for my own child, I could better empathize for them. I’m not saying I want to be a lazy viewer, that I want it all laid out for me; I want to think while I watch movies, but isn’t this a little too much work? Can’t we get the same level of detail in the character, and as we get in the campsite?

It’s not that I don’t love attention to detail. It is really fun to see a lushly-imagined world in film. I loved what Wes Anderson did with Camp Ivanhoe in the movie, though it’s probably nothing like the prepubescent Thunderdome that a Boy Scout camp is in real life. One of the other four movies I’ve seen these past five years is The Secret World of Arietty, Hayao Miyazaki’s animated version of The Borrowers. I took C to see it – he loves Miyazaki movies because he is fancy and international: Ponyo, Spirited Away, and My Neighbor Totoro are all favorites. I love them too; and I think they succeed in the way I find Wes Anderson’s movies lacking. In Arietty, for instance, Miyazaki has thought of every detail in bringing to life this tiny world that the Borrowers inhabit; he thought of a million ways these tiny creatures can use everyday minutia like pushpins, postage stamps, and blades of grass to create a fully-realized wee household. It’s magical, but there is also a compelling, heartfelt story there.

Maybe Miyazaki’s movies work better than Anderson’s because they are meant for children. In a children’s movie, stories and characters are simpler (yet no less moving), but the worlds the characters inhabit are outsized for a child’s imagination. I think that Anderson’s best movie lately was for children, The Fantastic Mr Fox; there, he looked to a master (Roald Dahl) for the story, and left himself free to color it in with all of the creative detail that he liked. Perhaps he should stick to that. And, on the flip side, maybe I enjoyed Anderson’s movies more post-college than I do now, post-children, because they appeal more to a younger person’s view of the world: full of color, just a few whiffs of emotion, lots of style, and a soundtrack that does much of the work of conveying meaning to life. I’m thinking of all those mix tapes I listened to pounding up and down Prospect Park West in the snow.

Maybe maybe maybe. I don’t know. I’m not Lisa Schwartzbaum. The other two movies I’ve seen post-children are The Dark Knight and Horrible Bosses (I know, right?), so clearly I am no expert. I’m just proud of myself getting out of the house on a Saturday night. I will tell you that going to the movie and thinking of all their future travails made me miss my little ones so much, that I couldn’t wait to get home and kiss them and carefully rearrange their teddy bears as they slept. So that’s a little sign of success, I think.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. I’m still jealous you took C to The Secret Life of Arietty

    June 4, 2012
  2. Johnnyboy #

    I’m stoned and I have no idea how I ended up here, but I like your review of Moonrise Kingdom.

    June 18, 2012
  3. Generally I don’t read post on blogs, however I wish to say that this write-up
    very forced me to take a look at and do so! Your writing style has been surprised me.

    Thanks, very nice post.

    April 23, 2014

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