It's 1965, the rainy end of summer on the rocky, isle-strewn coast of New England. Sam (Jared Gelman), a scrawny, bespectacled outcast with an unusual aptitude for cartography, disappears from the Khaki Scout camp supervised by Scout Master Randy Ward (Edward Norton), absconding with a couple of bedrolls and an air rifle and leaving a “resignation” letter. Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) — a just-pubescent bad seed, straddling the line between innocence and sexual precocity in pre-mod peacock eyes and minidress paired with knee socks and “Sunday school shoes” — disappears from her own dollhouse-like home, her self-absorbed, distracted lawyer parents, Laura (Frances MacDormand) and Walt (Bill Murray), initially none the wiser.
After they're paid a visit by the law of the island, Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), on his door-to-door rounds in search of Sam, Laura finds a box of “intimate” correspondence between her daughter and Sam (an orphan who, unbeknownst to the kid, has been dumped by his foster family), suggesting the two have run away together. Aided by what remains of Ward's troupe (“It's a chance to do some first-class scouting!”), the grown-ups mobilize to find the fugitive young lovers, and bring them to safety, if not to justice.
Shot on Super 16mm, the visible grain giving the image a wonderfully tactile depth and life, Moonrise Kingdom is, in a lot of ways, the ur-Wes Anderson film. The director, who co-wrote the script with his Darjeeling Limited collaborator Roman Coppola, leaves his usual stylistic fingerprints — the horizontal pans across just-so tableaux, the casting of Murray and Jason Schwartzman (but not, noticeably, Owen Wilson, who has participated in every previous Anderson film), the hermetic world defined by its highly specific, often too-perfect design. But it's also his most fully realized work, with many of the tics that served as distancing effects in previous films (particularly the fetishizing of analog objects and characters who greet the world in costume, props in hand) here fully a part of the fabric of the film's period construction and its story. The newcomers to Anderson's kingdom are savvily cast. Norton (a failed superhero, having been replaced as the Hulk by Mark Ruffalo) and Willis (whose increasingly apparent age complicates his invincible-badass persona) each are given a chance to prove themselves as heroes in surprising ways.
The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou may be the most direct precursor to Moonrise within Anderson's filmography, in that both are essentially adventures, elaborate, larger-than-life movie-movies punctured by violence that has real consequences that seem shocking within the playful spaces Anderson meticulously creates. But Moonrise's storytelling, in its craft and in its content, more directly references young-adult fantasy fiction — both the explicitly magical variety and the more-earthbound strain featuring ordinary kids who manage to pull off extraordinary plots in an effort to shake off the constraints of a mundane life.
Rated PG-13, Moonrise Kingdom takes the form of old-fashioned preteen literature, but knowingly. Set against a devastating storm, the outcome of the film's gorgeously CGI-enhanced climactic adventure emphases both the ephemerality of preteen feelings and the ways in which our inability to go back and relive a cherished moment fossilizes it in memory. Its richly shaded portrait of young love is both unquestionably mature and defiantly utopian. Suzy and Sam's steadfast romanticism is a form of resistance, which is thrown into relief by the quiet despair of the adults in their lives. Lonely, even or particularly when not alone, for these parents and authority figures the possibility of romance being transformative, or even a salvation, seems long past, out of reach. Their melancholy limns Moonrise's fantasy with reality — which only makes the film's swooning re-creation of foolish, first-time, future-blind leap-taking all that more exhilarating.