On the whole, I’ve enjoyed most of director Wes Anderson’s oeuvre, and I count myself a fan. Enough so that I’m even partial to his oft-maligned Jacques Cousteau riff “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” one of his least-liked films. It’s far from perfect, I admit, but there’s enough of a through-line to it from “Rushmore,” his 1998 breakthrough, that I find it worthwhile. “Rushmore,” in case there’s any doubt, is a film that I found to be thoroughly wonderful and full of singular promise. It balanced a wholly novel worldview with indelible characters. There’s been very little like it from other directors since.
Over the weekend I went to see Anderson’s newest movie “Moonrise Kingdom,” which like his past works is another Joseph Cornell-like cinematic diorama, full of diminutive but delightful details and vaguely familiar but endearingly idiosyncratic characters. It tells the tale of two pre-teens who fall in love and plot to steal away to a remote part of a fictional New England island, and the comical search parties that pursue them.
Part of the wonder of a Wes Anderson film, for me, is getting to see the kind of film a designer would make given a budget, a crew and a sampling of today’s most notable celebrities. Anderson populates his movies with big name actors eager to burnish their indie cred, and he surrounds them with the accoutrements of his obsessions: obsolete technology, dubious uniforms, imaginary cartographies, naive architecture, and more. Every single piece counts, and is placed exquisitely in relation to every other. Most filmmakers compose their frames, but it might be more accurate to say that Anderson lays his out, much the way print designers once pasted up pages in lavishly illustrated encyclopedia volumes. It’s not film direction, it’s art direction.
In this, Anderson remains at the height of his powers. “Moonrise Kingdom” looks great. The eye can’t help but pore over each frame, visually twiddling with the seemingly endless details festooned fussily on every object. No one can art direct quite like Wes Anderson, and together with his regular cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman, no one can produce films quite this visually rich. The story is set in 1965 and is rendered with an appropriately halcyon color palette that’s a wonder to behold; it evokes an intoxicating, imaginary past with the verve of an Instagram photo adapted for the screen by a true auteur.
Nevertheless, I found myself intermittently irritated by it. To watch “Moonrise Kingdom” is to be enthralled by the totality of Anderson’s vision, and even to be warmed by the obvious fondness that he has for his characters. But the movie is also ninety-four minutes of starvation if you’re hungry for any kind of substantial character development. The protagonists (and by the end, nearly everyone is a protagonist, undermining any real dramatic tension the plot had going for it) are little more than inventories of their scripted eccentricities. The director offers scant few arguments for why any of the characters do any of the things they do; they’re all just dress-up dolls at the beck and call of Anderson’s charmingly pre-adolescent fetishes.
Poor character development can seem like a petty complaint when Anderson also provides the visual riches that he does. His technical proficiency is clearly higher than ever, and if you can set aside the centrality of character development, you’d have no trouble arguing that “Moonrise Kingdom” is a remarkable jewel of a movie. (In fairness, the characters are not as horrifically ill-conceived as they were in Anderson’s 2007 travelogue “The Darjeeling Limited.”) This is perhaps how we should think of Anderson’s films from here on out: technical marvels engineered to show off endless quirk. That’s a legitimate credential; it’s just not the one I would have hoped for right after I saw “Rushmore.”