There's a moment in the first half of Moonrise Kingdom that elicited an audible gasp from most of the audience. It's the kind of scene that should, for all intents and purposes, ruin the movie for a lot of viewers, and it's impressive that Wes Anderson is able to pull everyone back in with a wry response. When Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) answers Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) question with a typically Andersonian response, "who's to say?" the tension broke and Moonrise Kingdom continued along its course. A lesser filmmaker wouldn't be able to save the moment, and yes, I'm deliberately staying vague because it isn't an essential plot point but it does break an unspoken cardinal rule of filmmaking.
* goes thusly "never work with dogs, or children" when making movies. Wes Anderson breaks both of those rules to great success, although the adults in Moonrise Kingdom are no slouches either. At its core, the film is about Sam and Suzy conspiring to run away from unhappy situations: Sam is an orphan with a history of acting out and Suzy is a "troubled" child in the eyes of her parents, Laura (Frances McDormand) and Walt (Billy Murray). Through correspondence, Sam and Suzy decide to escape and follow the old Chicktaw Nature Trail to find a private hideaway. Unfortunately, the Bishop family, along with Khaki Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton) and police Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) are on their trail, along with the rest of the Khaki Scouts and their dog Snoopy.
This was roughly what I knew about Moonrise Kingdom going in (minus Sam and Suzy's reasons for running away) along with what appeared to be the most Andersonian opportunity the auteur had to indulge in his fetishistic set design. Wes Anderson has always demonstrated an affinity for the mid-1960s, in music, art direction, and color palette, so setting Moonrise Kingdom on an isolated island in New England just before a hurricane hits. Oh, and it's 1965. If it was possible to go beyond Fantastic Mr. Fox, where Anderson literally had control over every element of production, Moonrise Kingdom would be that film.
I don't suppose I need to warn people who don't like Wes Anderson films that Moonrise Kingdom isn't going to change your mind, but it's a good enough opening for the fourth paragraph of a review as any. Anderson fans have a tendency to fixate on Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums as "high water marks" (with good reason), but tend to disagree about The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Darjeeling Limited. Anderson, working with Roman Coppola again on the screenplay, finds a tone similar to Rushmore and Tenenbaums, but from a different perspective. Sam and Suzy are 12, even younger than Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman does have a small role as "Cousin Ben"), and rather than behaving like adults, the two bond over their feelings of alienation from everybody else. Sam leaves Scout Master Ward a letter of resignation from the Khaki Scouts but relies heavily on the hiking and camping skills he picked up at Camp Ivanhoe. Suzy leaves a note to her brother explaining that she will return his record player "in ten days" with new batteries. Their plan is naive, they just barely know each other, but the kindred spirits are determined to be together.
Scout Master Ward and Chief Sharp find themselves in a situation they honestly aren't sure how to deal with, one that grows increasingly more complicated when Sam's foster family refuses him and Social Services (Tilda Swinton) gets involved. The Bishops are both lawyers who reject the notion that their daughter is culpable in Sam's plan, or that she would attack one of the Khaki scouts in order to escape a showdown (I will say nothing more than it involves a pair of left-handed scissors). Part of the fun of Moonrise Kingdom are its twists and turns; beyond what you learn in the trailer, there's a lot going on between the adults, between the other children (particularly the scouts), and how the Narrator (Bob Balaban) figures into the narrative. Also, a mostly unmentioned cameo from Harvey Keitel Khaki Commander Pierce, who runs Camp Lebanon on an island across the way.
If you felt detached from the characters in The Darjeeling Limited or had trouble connecting to Team Zissou or Mr. Fox, you'll have no such trouble with Moonrise Kingdom. First timers Gilman and Hayward are excellent as Sam and Suzy, two prepubescent kids who don't quite know how to be grown up but want something better. Willis, Murray, McDormand, Norton, and Swinton all make impressions as they try to make sense of the situation, and while Murray is typically in high form working with Anderon, the others fit like a glove in his "universe," particularly Norton as a sweet-natured math teacher who wants to do right by his scouts.
There's something about setting Moonrise Kingdom in 1965 that might lead you to expect Anderson is indulging in all of his favorite stylistic moments, but the soundtrack leans heavily on Hank Williams and the film feels loose and unencumbered in its mid-section. Once we move past the impeccably organized Bishop home and move outdoors, Anderson's camera is liberated along with Sam and Suzy, and Moonrise Kingdom benefits from this relaxed approach. Later in the film, he returns to stop motion animation (watch the bridge crossing late in the film) and some clever special effects (the lightning field sequence), but overall Moonrise Kingdom feels more attached to its characters, however flawed, and it's a fine experience at the end. (Oh, make sure to stay through the credits to hear a musical bridge to the opening credits. It's worth it.)
* I could find no evidence that it isn't a Fields quote but at the same time couldn't pinpoint exactly when he said it.