Benjamin Britten's operatic interpretation of the 15th century play Noye's Fludde (Noah's Flood) was written to be performed in a large hall by a cast of amateurs, often calling on the audience to sing along. It's a rousing piece of music and a perfect fit as the foundation of Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom. Like the opera, the spirited tale of young love is whimsical and bold, juxtaposing a group of unknown young people alongside a handful of professionals: Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand and Bruce Willis. Even more so than his previous work, Anderson's design and camera choices are overt and self-aware. The result is an endeavor closer to theater than film, a living storybook with the emotional depth to boot. That doesn't quite work for his adult costars, but when the action hones in on the central duo, two outcast children smitten with one another, it's a touching portrait that mesmerizes both the eyes and the heart.
Sam (Jared Gilman) is a down-on-his luck orphan, sent off to Khaki Scout camp on the verdant New England island of New Panzance. Suzy (Kara Hayward) is a misunderstood teenager with aggressive tendencies, who bides her time on New Panzance by reading fantasy books and hoping one day to escape. When the two eventually cross paths — at a performance of Noye's Fludde! — it's love at first sight. After a snail mail correspondence, Sam and Suzy run away together, their adventure sparking everyone on the island to gather for a search party. Anderson treasures an ensemble, and cuts between Sam and Suzy's personal journey and the ragtag team of desperate adults: Suzy's lawyer parents (McDormand and Murray), police captain Sharp (Willis), bumbling Khaki Scout leader Scout Master Ward (Norton) and an island expert (Bob Balaban), who's also on hand to narrate the escapades from an all-knowing perspective.
The script, co-written by Anderson and Roman Coppola, feels perfectly in tune with the wonderfully weird kids the auteur has assembled for his lead roles. The dialogue is honest and raw — it sounds like what kids might say. In a stretch during the middle of the movie, Anderson slows down the pace of his madcap mission movie to settle in with Suzy and Sam on a scenic cove beach. There, they spend time reading, dreaming and thanking their lucky stars to be away from the rest of the world. Shot with a stunning, earthly palette, the sequence is one of Anderson's best. When the adults factor back in, the movie loses its vivid innocence, diluted by characters that don't go anywhere and jokes that feel happenstance.
There's a lot to chew on in Moonrise Kingdom, and a lot to love. Norton stands out among the older crew, his Scout Master nutty, neurotic and less mature than his teenage troop. Murray and McDormand provide a necessary humanity to the whole affair, as Suzy's kooky but tangible parental figures. There's no time to dwell on any one character, so they all feel like sketches — albeit ones you'd love to see in a movie all their own. Anderson's piles on more and more and more as Moonrise Kingdom scales the cinematic mountain, even managing to squeeze in a scene of destruction worthy of Roland Emmerich. He presents the smorgasbord of ideas in a low-fi fashion that's all his own — certain moments even recall the animation style of Fantastic Mr. Fox — but the visual and comedic chaos only coalesces when the kids are on screen. Moonrise Kingdom is a coming of age movie that I hoped would never come of age.