In my original review of THE DARJEELING LIMITED, I detected the promise of a mature, career-defining work lurking deep within, and suggested that Wes Anderson shed some of his baggage in order to locate it. I didn’t specify what, exactly, that would entail, only that DARJEELING lacked emphatic resolve to a degree which, for all of the film’s attributes, only highlighted the director’s growing self-absorption.

Five years later, MOONRISE KINGDOM very nearly fills that magnum opus slot in Anderson’s oeuvre. While sonorously emphatic compared to anything he’s done since THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, it’s not as if he has radically altered his approach and discarded all of those stylistic quirks that viewers tend to either deeply admire or despise. I doubt he could rid his films of them if he wanted to—arguably no other filmmaker of his generation has forged such an instantly recognizable sensibility, both in visual and aural cues (you can trace the opening scene’s room-by-room house tour back to TENENBAUMS and THE LIFE AQUATIC) and narrative themes (absent parents, disillusioned adults, creative and resourceful children, parent-child bonding between two characters that are not related, etc;). Fortunately, they’re refinements rather than retreads, in the tradition of other auteurs who similarly make variations of the same film, from Bergman and Ozu to Woody Allen and the Dardennes.

At first glance, MOONRISE gets a lot out of its temporal and physical settings. Although ostensibly set in the present, Anderson’s past films felt lost in time, suffused with anachronisms that suggested not a specific date but an imaginative space where memories converged and coalesced. Here, he’s finally taken the extra step to purposely set the action in a particular time (late summer of 1965) in addition to a specific place (New Penzance, a fictional island off the New England coast). Committing to an era allows him to recreate it without seeming obsolescent. Unsurprisingly, everything from the wardrobe to the soundtrack impeccably evokes a year one could easily surmise even without expository assistance from Bob Balaban as the film’s narrator (but only Anderson would supplement Francoise Hardy and Hank Williams songs with relatively obscure Benjamin Britten pieces).

What primarily lends MOONRISE its mystique, however, is New Penzance itself. The coastal landscape (actually Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island) appears at once both cozily idyllic and rough-hewn. Its isolation breeds an otherness that manifests itself to positive (gorgeous, untouched scenery which Alexander Desplat’s score marvelously complements) and negative (a hurricane renders the same landscape violent and unforgiving) effect. It’s a model setting for a coming-of-age story where two young adolescents, Sam and Suzy (Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, both first-time film actors) run away together, much to the chagrin and worriment of their peers, parents and other adults, most of whom are fairly unhappy and likely desire to run away from their own duties and disappointments as well. Anderson has assembled a terrific cast which includes faces both familiar (Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman) and new to the director; the latter include Edward Norton as an earnest scoutmaster, Bruce Willis as a lonely, pragmatic cop and Tilda Swinton as a fearfully efficient woman who, in a typical Andersonian quirk, goes by the name (and occupation) “Social Services”.

Naturally, a film’s setting and design will only carry it so far without an engaging narrative; in this case, the film’s story is its not-so-secret weapon which Anderson places front and center. Although he’s addressed the notion of first love before (most extensively in RUSHMORE), he’s never explored it as robustly and beautifully as he does with Sam and Suzy. The extended section where they run off together hits a crescendo of feeling and warmth that surpasses anything Anderson has previously tried in this vein. It’s almost like a whimsical take on BEFORE SUNRISE, only the characters aren’t aware that their time together is predetermined; thus their abrupt separation and eventual reunion makes more of an impact. The film’s second half aspires to an action-packed, Marx Brothers-style lunacy similar to what Anderson attempted in FANTASTIC MR. FOX, complete with fire, flash floods and even someone getting struck by lightning. Still, it’s the delicately lovely and wistful note the film concludes on that left me in a giddy haze as I exited the theater.  Grade: A

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