Film review: Lyrical ‘Moonrise Kingdom’ a Visual Marvel

Moonrise Kingdom 9Like most critics that have reviewed Moonrise Kingdom I am as gung-ho about it as Edward Norton’s Scout Master Ward is about the Khaki Scout movement he earnestly serves. It is a lyrical visual marvel.

Moonrise Kingdom 3Wes Anderson’s seventh feature film (his first since the delightful 2009 animated flick Fantastic Mr. Fox and his latest live-action piece since The Darjeeling Limited five years ago) has among its ample bag of goodies a soundtrack that may be the 43-year-old filmmaker’s best mix of musical selections since Rushmore (1998). What mind could conceive of Benjamin Britton, Hank Williams and Alexandre Desplat (with a soupçon of Françoise Hardy for seasoning) harmoniously coinciding in the dish Moonrise Kingdom serves up? Happily for us the mind of the auteur that literally and figuratively burst onto the scene in 1996 with Bottle Rocket did.

Moonrise Kingdom 1I’ve long felt cinematically speaking that if Stanley Kubrick (in a Dr. Strangelove state of mind) had fathered a pop-art son whose uncle was François Truffaut the result would have been Anderson. His autumn-approaches mise-en-scène, shot in 16 millimeter with graceful precision by Robert Yeoman, provides a colorful, carefully-ordered visual palette for a well-focused humor-filled script by Anderson and Roman Coppola.

Moonrise Kingdom 2The story centers on 12-year-olds Sam and Suzy – played by terrific newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward – that fall in love and run away on the (fictional) New Penzance Island off the coast of New England in September 1965. The film’s narrator (deliciously played with his trademark deadpan hilarity by Bob Balaban) lets us quickly know our young lovers aren’t creating the only tempest in the area as residents and authorities are marshaled to find them; there’s a nasty storm brewing off-shore that’s going to leave the formerly tranquil isle in chaotic shape before it passes.

Two familiar faces in Anderson’s visual repertory company dot the landscape for this outing and they certainly don’t disappoint: Bill Murray is the depressed father of Suzy who struggles along with his neglected wife (played to subtle perfection by Frances McDormand) to understand why their routine-dominated lives are coming unglued. And Jason Schwartzman plays for laughs – and succeeds in that goal – as the worldly scout leader Cousin Ben.

Moonrise Kingdom 4Bruce Willis is the cast’s pleasant surprise as gentle law-and-order man Captain Sharp. There is no remnant of Die Hard or (mercifully) Hudson Hawk in this performance like so many of his other film appearances; understated suits him well.

The aforementioned Norton is a gem as a beleaguered leader of young men, and others in the cast’s mix of vets and youngsters acquit themselves well. My only concern lies with the supremely talented Tilda Swinton. I generally gush about her work, but as the essentially nameless Social Services there’s nothing to really connect with in the bureaucratic archetype she presents. That’s likely the choice left her by the script, but it still leaves one wanting more.

Moonrise Kingdom 8It would spoil some fun by revealing who the unbilled commander of the Khaki Scouts is. I’ll just write that the casting of that role is another wonderful riff on the film’s regular refrain of absurdity.

What ultimately provides the glue for this movie, though, is the milk of human kindness that’s been an integral part of Anderson’s cinematic storytelling from the start of his career. Moonrise Kingdom is indeed a marvel for all its narrative-supporting precision, but its memorable beauty comes from the lyrical heart its creator has provided.


Moonrise Kingdom ( is now screening in Nashville at the Belcourt Theatre (, 2102 Belcourt Ave. It’s also playing at the Regal Opry Mills Stadium 20 (, 570 Opry Mills Dr., and the Carmike Thoroughbred 20 (, 633 Frazier Dr. in Franklin. Rated PG-13 for sexual content and smoking, 110 min. Directed by Wes Anderson; written by Anderson and Roman Coppola. Starring Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Bob Balaban, Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton and Jason Schwartzman.

Moonrise Kingdom 10*All photos by Niko Tavernise courtesy Focus Features.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (