By J. Hoberman | A kinder, gentler, altogether more soulful “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse,” Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom” is a triumph of marionette show mise-en-scène and a paean to precocious puppy love. Returning to the pre-adolescent world of “Rushmore” with the wisdom gained from his puppet animation “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” Anderson has made his least self-regarding, most engaging (live action) film in more than a decade.
Inflating a tendency already present in “The Royal Tenenbaums,” Anderson’s more elaborate followups “The Life Aquatic” and “The Darjeeling Limited” were so aggressively precious as to inspire a new term: “overtweening.” By contrast, “Moonrise Kingdom” is a restrained, scaled-down fairy tale set in a parallel world, somewhere on the New England coast during the summer of ’65, and concerned with the all-consuming passion between a pair of oddball, seriously serious 12-year-olds.
Each a designated problem child, obsessive Sam (Jared Gilman) and fierce Suzy (Kara Hayward), are more endearing versions of the driven fantasist Jason Schwartzman played to indelible effect in “Rushmore.” A flashback details their meet-cute, the previous summer, at church pageant — a faux, jerrybuilt production of Benjamin Britten’s “Noye’s Fludde” in which Sam is smitten by Suzy’s appearance as a raven. Corresponding over the course of the year, the pair come up with a plan to run off together. Sam breaks out of Khaki Scout camp to meet Suzy in the meadow by her home. Neither deigning to smile, the kids take to the woods with an odd assortment of supplies, including his corncob pipe and her binoculars, not to mention a trove of purloined library books and a kitty cat.
This l’amour fou elopement is less “Romeo and Juliet” than a story out of Chateaubriand’s “Atala and René” — an Edenic idyll in some half-imaginary American outback. The movie’s romantic title is the name they give the sheltered cove where they set up camp. (It’s a more rustic version of the decal-festooned, toy-filled pup tent Luke Wilson pitched in the Tenenbaum family attic.) Thoughtful as these innocents are, Anderson derives much gentle humor from their swapped worldviews and exchanged confidences: “I accidentally built a fire while sleepwalking,” Sam reveals.
The whimsy is amplified by a cast of comically flawed adults (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand as Suzy’s befuddled parents, Ed Norton as Sam’s scout troop leader, a nearly unrecognizable Bruce Willis as an avuncular town cop having an unlikely affair with the McDormand character) and mitigated by a soupçon of grittiness. Pursuit of the fugitives results in the shedding of actual blood and the runaway lovers engage in actual sex, albeit naturalistically tentative and charmingly metaphoric. Sam makes Suzy a pair of fish-lure earrings and pierces her lobe while she’s in her underwear. Then they dance together on the beach to Suzy’s Francois Hardy EP (she’s also packed a battery powered portable record player) and kiss. Tongue touches tongue — it’s sweet.
There is also what T.S. Eliot would call an objective correlative: Nature exhibits equally strong emotions. “Noye’s Fludde” is rhymed by the mini tidal wave that batters New Penzance island in the final act. While Anderson can’t quite orchestrate a satisfying storybook closer, “Moonrise Kingdom” has built up so considerable a reservoir of goodwill that it scarcely matters. His movie is basically an ingenious contraption about ingenious contraptions, artfully predicated on the continual redeployment of key elements (Hank Williams songs, unlikely checklists, cute hats) and trick mannerisms (Suzy’s parents invariably communicate via portable loudspeaker). Festooned with all manner of buttons and doo-dads, the sets look like miniatures fashioned from Lincoln logs and gossamer webs. Plus, the two kids are great. “Moonrise Kingdom” is a will-o’-the-wisp with the resilience of tensile steel.