Faith & Film: Moonrise Kingdom

The latest film from the quirky independent filmmaker Wes Anderson (“The Royal Tannenbaums,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox”), “Moonrise Kingdom” takes us back to a small New England town in the summer of 1965. All still seemed innocent and idyllic.

At the Khaki Scout camp, the troop gathers for breakfast when the Scout Master (Edward Norton) notices that one of his campers is missing. All begin searching for Sam, who left a note saying that he is leaving camp. It turns out that Sam is an orphan who has been living in a foster home. His foster parents do not want him back because they claim he is emotionally disturbed. As the scouts search for Sam, sympathetic Police Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) wonders what will become of the boy.

Meanwhile Sam has run away with his girlfriend, Suzy. The two 12-year-olds hide out on a cove while all look frantically for them. Captain Sharp calls in Social Services. In one of the movie’s wittiest themes, Tilda Swinton plays a woman who only refers to herself as “Social Services.” It seems that she has no name of her own!

Anderson has shot “Moonrise Kingdom” beautifully. Every shot is perfectly composed. A long sequence that takes place in a summer thunderstorm is particularly impressive. Anderson often uses a left-to-right panning shot effectively, as in the opening sequence when all members of the Bishop family are introduced in their house. Anderson has assembled a fine cast of comic actors, many of whom he has worked with previously. In addition to the above mentioned, Bill Murray and Frances McDormand are the Bishops, Suzy’s parents. Bruce Willis is particularly effective playing against type as the kindly police captain who brings Sam into his home.

“Moonrise Kingdom” is beautiful to look at, with a cast of likeable actors. It also features a memorable score by Alexandre Desplat, doing variations on Britten’s “Young People’s Guide to the Orchestra.” Don’t leave before the end of the credits to hear an analysis of the score!

Yet, despite being technically accomplished, “Moonrise Kingdom” felt flat. I was puzzled by the experience. When I left the theater, I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to make of it. Neither the plot nor the characters were particularly compelling. With the exception of Willis’ police captain, none of the characters seemed real; they needed to be fleshed out. Anderson’s previous animated film, “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” was much more successful in combining a distinctive technical style with substantial characters and plot.

So my verdict on “Moonrise Kingdom” is mixed. Thumbs up for technique and quirkiness; thumbs down for plot and character.

Tom Condon, OP