The characters in Wes Anderson's movies live in a fantasyland. Going back to his 1998 breakthrough Rushmore to 2009's Fantastic Mr. Fox (a stop-motion animated film about woodland creatures that takes the whole fantasy thing to the extreme), the boys, girls, men, women, and assorted animals who populate the writer-director's movies exist in a world that's a little bit different than the one we're living in.
But even Anderson's best movies — Mr. Fox, The Royal Tenenbaums — can be insular and self-aware. Of course his fans love him for these qualities, while outsiders are left cold by his occasionally arch dialogue, cagey plots, and distancing style. In other words, you know when you're watching a Wes Anderson movie. In that respect, Moonrise Kingdom, his seventh feature, is the quintessential Wes Anderson film. Regulars Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman show up. Newcomers Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, and Tilda Swinton join the party. And the whole thing falls together with an equal mix of Anderson's childlike charm and hipster coolness.
It's 1965 New England, and 12-year-old orphan Sam (Jared Gilman) falls for 12-year-old Suzy (Kara Hayward). He looks like most of Anderson's young protagonists: skinny, nerdy, and sporting glasses that don't fit his head quite right. And she's a dead ringer for a typical Anderson woman, coming off at least 10 years older than the boys around her.
Sam and Suzy decide to run away from it all. Sam's in his scout uniform, complete with canteen and knee-high socks; Suzy is decked out like she's spending the weekend with the Kennedys. All the grownups — including Murray and Frances McDormand as Suzy's loveless lawyer parents — freak out, especially when they get news that a big storm is on the way.
That's pretty much the plot. But as any Anderson fan will tell you, it all comes down to the details. Anderson and co-writer Roman Coppola stuff Moonrise Kingdom with all of the things you've come to expect from the director: a wry narrator, glorious set design, a vintage soundtrack, and dialogue that playfully volleys across the screen.
Moonrise Kingdom moves quicker and more effortlessly than Anderson's past few movies; it's his liveliest film since The Royal Tenenbaums. And the excellent cast keeps up, especially Norton as a scout leader who runs his camp like boot camp but genuinely cares about the unpopular and unloved Sam, and Willis, as a small-town police chief who also happens to be having an affair with Suzy's mom.
The young couple at the center of the movie follow every step, developing a believable balance of 12-year-old innocence and grown-up angst. Sam smokes a pipe, Suzy wears too much makeup, and they stumble through their feelings like people twice their age. Most of this will bug the shit out of Anderson's detractors, and you can see their point if you don't settle into Anderson's groove. But there's so much joy here – with words, filmmaking, and that moment in life when adolescent whims give way to young-adult desires.