The trappings of childhood are usually designed to prepare us for becoming adults, and the toys and books and clothes that we grow up with often stand in for the equivalents we adopt later in life. The people we meet – and the relationships we forge as children – set the tone for the way we interact with the world as we get older. We’re fortunate that adults are put together just as well as kids are, only with different toys, books and clothes to surround themselves with.
This, in a nutshell, is the central thesis of Moonrise Kingdom: regardless of the age we reach, we are really no more insightful about the world than our children, and our relationships are just as simplistic and/or complex. There will always be a parent or mentor above us looking to chastise / be jealous of us for doing what we think is right. In many ways, this is a thread that you can pull through all of Anderson’s work, to the point that even his working adult name is diminutive, both in the shortened form of “Wes,” and in that he will always be Ander’s son; he will always be a fully grown child. Even Anderson’s co-writer for this film, Roman Coppola, is Francis Ford’s son, bringing this thematic element to the construction of the movie itself. While Anderson often blends the world of the film and the world that created the film, this aspect of metatext might be the reason to include a narrator that talks directly to the audience, as well as interacts with these childishly adult characters.
Perhaps the most childish are the adults that spend a good portion of the movie searching for Sam & Suzy. Laura & Walt Bishop live in what appears to be a giant dollhouse, and they play at parenting and being lawyers the way kids do. Laura’s temper and violent physical outbursts toward her husband perfectly match the actions of an angry and confused 12 year old. Conversely, Walt is quiet like a shy little boy, entirely reserved from years of coping with his abusive girlfriend. This has led to his inability to do accomplish anything; he makes suggestions that he will ride a motorcycle or chop down a tree, but never engages in either activity. The only time they engage each other is when discussing law, an act that mitigates this stunted arguments of adults acting like children; otherwise, they are physically separated, each in different rooms / depths of focus / beds. They each play roles neither are particularly good at, nor do they fully understand.
Randy is probably the most childish, playing boy scout well into middle age. His interactions with children are all based in camaraderie, delivered as friendly leadership moments among peers. He offers no real guidance when they do wrong, and instead gives suggestions for how they can follow the letter of scout law more closely. His own ability to wear this identity himself is much like his uniform: ill-fitting. He is trying to teach the young scouts how to remain as such forever, but their own survival skills seem to have come from elsewhere.
Captain Sharp is no better; his policeman’s uniform resembles that of a little league outfit (right down to his ball cap), and as neither he or Randy have children of their own, they struggle to break out of the rolls they set for themselves when they were kids, and yet have no real idea how to do this. You can easily imagine Captain Sharp saying “Police Officer” when asked what he was going to be when he grows up, and has thus been one ever since, not knowing there are possible alternatives.
At the center of all these childish adults are Sam & Suzy, each of them comfortably taking on the roles of a couple where not even their parents can do so. They plan their individual escapes with an inventive amount of detail and preparation, and quickly consummate their budding relationship, something the adults are unable to do. Their physical and emotional intimacy creates a counterpoint for the distance that exists between everyone else. Unlike the childish cigarettes that Randy wields, held in the most dainty of manners, Sam smokes a wooden pipe. Suzy reads to Sam – who listens attentively – where her parents can barely talk to each other without using a bullhorn. The children seem particularly skilled in assuming their roles in this relationship; Sam’s training as a scout has made him the perfect at surviving in the wilderness away from people, while Suzy’s rage and intelligent sweetness makes her a perfect complement in sharing intimacy and fending off danger.
Both manage to pantomime adult mating rituals with comic outcomes, but the results carry more sweetness and beauty than any other examples of affection that are shown in the film. Getting to know each other’s tastes, dancing to pop music, and even their first awkward motions toward physical contact not only mark a counterpoint to the Suzy’s parents, but is a perfect analog for the experience of dating everyone goes through. We all feel far too young when we first experience someone physically, and we each feel as if we’ve wandered into some uncharted territory, on the ledge of a precipice or ocean, and in spite of what anyone may already have called it, there is an urge to shout out our own names to make this world our own.
“Why are you in such a hurry?” Captain Sharp asks Sam after he and Suzy are “rescued” by the bumbling search party, and this offers a little insight into the plight of the adults in this film. Longing for a time when their lives could be simplistic – like when they were children – only drives their childish behavior more. They each live with regrets they can never take back, and this motivation leads to their desire to stymie the progression into adulthood they think these children are foolishly making. What they are ignoring, however, is that Sam and Suzy are already grown up; any effort the adults make is too late. What scares the adults in this film the most isn’t that the kids are growing up to fast, but that they themselves haven’t even attempted to do so.
What sells Sam and Suzy’s adult behavior in terms of the films assembly is the careful use of cinematic tropes and references that not only correspond with the time period of the film, but include the deft incorporation of a narrator, played expertly by Bob Balaban. The unnamed narrator not only breaks the fourth wall by addressing us directly while also appearing as a character in the film, but his careful monitoring of the environmental elements that are at play make him very well equipped to move between our world and theirs. It his this character who not only fills us in on what is happening, but does the same for the adults when they are at a loss as to how to find Sam & Suzy. In much the same way that Greek plays unfold, The Narrator both describes the action, but intercedes upon this action, and Balaban’s performance in this capacity as an actual meteorologist is perhaps the only true grown “adult” in the film.
Meanwhile, Sam, Suzy and the other scouts perfectly adapt their behavior to match those of the movies they are imitating, weaving elements of westerns, 50’s romantic dramas and war films into their perceptions of how they should behave. The adults, however, continue their childish pursuits of a High School drama, until the storm strikes, at which time they try to step out of their roles to become adults the children really need.
More than anything else, the film is a mash note to the biggest influence in Anderson’s life: Young Adult novels of his childhood. While there are some elements of this in his film version of the children’s book The Fantastic Mr. Fox, as well as certain elements of The Royal Tennebaums (Margot essentially re-enacts a bit of the storyline of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler when she runs away as a child to live in a Museum), Moonrise Kingdom takes the ideas from this and a number of similar books (My Side Of The Mountain, Bridge to Terabithia, etc.) and remixes them with an Andersonian sense of how they all influenced his own childhood. It’s clear that Anderson never managed to grow up, or, rather, spent his youth already grown up and had to wait in real time for his own body to catch up. This has very clearly left an indelible impact on him, and it is no wonder that this movie is set in the ’60’s, when Anderson himself was born. We are being asked to see this as a melting pot where his great loves – film, books, and the blurred line between childhood and adulthood – was born.
As with any Wes Anderson movie, the details in this film are flawlessly assembled. There is a hand-made quality to everything he does, so much so that even the few CGI moments seem painless by comparison to the way some directors use the effect. His Ozu references are just as beautiful as his nods to Encyclopedia Brown, and his musical selections are not only dead perfect, but work in a sort of Peter And The Wolf manner, helping track characters and story elements deftly and beautifully. While it is impossible to say if this is my favorite film of his, perhaps that is not the point. This is another chapter in the story he is constantly telling, a new iteration of a story that seems to share qualities with every film before it.
While you could never argue that each film is identical to each other, a simple glance at any scene from any of his movies screams Anderson in a way that is immediately identifiable, and it is this that I have come to love from a man who has a love of making movies that is only outmatched by his completely self-conscious desire to control every element of their artifice, and remind us that yes, we are not only watching a film, we are watching a Wes Anderson film. And a damn good one, too.