Wes Anderson’s Kingdom

Sam ShakuskyOn 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.

Two Different Kinds of Direction

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.

Moonrise Kingdom

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.”

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15 Comments

  1. There’s no arguing taste. That said, you’re wrong. 🙂

    For me, this film was Anderson’s return to form. I found the events of the story to be surprising and entertaining and even at moments moving. Anderson no longer struggles with the mechanics of filmmaking. At this point, it’s all about the ideas and characters and visions he’s interested in bringing to life. I hope we can think more expansively about Anderson than as simply a technical stylist. He’s an incredibly unique voice in American cinema.

  2. +1 with your love of Rushmore, but +1 to Matt. If you missed the poetics going on here between the lines and the thin dialogue, then it’s hard to really point it out, but I found the main characters fully realized and sympathetic (and I’m not counting Tilda Swinton or Jason Schwartzman as “main”). I thought it was charming, and that’s not easy to pull off. Best film since Royal Tannenbaums in my Wes A book, despite a startling lack of Futura.

  3. Tom, sorry maybe “the poetics” were too subtle for me. I left the theater not being able to answer these questions:

    Why were the two leads attracted to each other in the first place? What did they even write to one another in their love letters that distinguished their personalities from just ‘boy’ and ‘girl,’ and what commonalities were revealed in that correspondence? Why didn’t Suzy have friends, and why was Sam so unpopular? Why was the marriage between Bill Murray and Frances McDormand’s characters on the rocks? What attracted Frances McDormand’s character to Bruce Willis’ character? Apart from the two leads, what did any of these other characters want besides to find to Sam and Suzy?

    Not all of these questions need to be answered in great depth, but there was little attempt to even flesh them out. (Anderson was too busy arranging items on the set, apparently.) Maybe they’re archetypes, and that’s the deeper significance here, but I’d hardly say that they were fully realized.

  4. Yes, the lack of Futura was quite startling but I was pleasantly surprised to see Jessica Hische in the credits. I thought the script was tasteful and fitting. (no pun intended)

  5. I admire almost every Wes Anderson ouvre from Rushmore to The Fantastic Mr. Fox (because Moonrise Kingdom is yet to be shown in the Philippines).

    This is the first time I heard of an assessment of that film in an art direction kind of perspective. I can only but agree to your appraisal of Anderson’s technical (or visual) flair when it comes to how the young director takes great pains in assembling his characters neatly inside the cinematic box (a.k.a. fetishes).

    Anderson’s truly a world-class auteur who has successfully created an enchanted kingdom for all lovers of cinema.

  6. Khoi– you sound like me re: Prometheus!

    It “made sense” to me as a piece that seems seen through the lens of a 11-year-old mind. The questions and situations were framed as an 11-year-old would see them. It was, to me, a piece that was like a childhood memory, at once detailed and simultaneously overly simple and pure. It was an adolescent universe, only making fragmented sense. Worked for me.

  7. Do we need much explanation for why two pre-teens are attracted to each other, though? They’re just kids. The boy wasn’t liked by his peers because he was nerdy and into all the boy scout stuff a lot more than the other kids were. The girl also seemed more introverted and into her fantasy books. The boy was an orphan and the girl lived in a family with an unhappy marriage, so they both wanted to run away. Both of them seemed older emotionally than their peers.

    And with the parents, Bill Murray’s character was depressed and not giving much attention to the wife. I think the fact that Bruce Willis’s character was a widower and cared about his dead wife so much was attractive to the woman, and he liked the attention from another woman. It also seemed like the adults were a little less emotionally mature than they should be… a contrast with the two kids. And they’re bored in a tiny town… why else do people have flings?

  8. Khoi,

    I couldn’t agree more with you and have been mentioning this exact observation to friends sends I saw the picture a few weeks ago, most of whom don’t really “get” my criticism.

    I too count myself as a Wes Anderson fan and love being immersed in the worlds he creates–I love his style, his color palate, his costumes and props–but at this point his films have gone off the deep end and lack even the bare minimum of story.

    Rushmore was clearly his break out film but for me Royal Tenenbaums may be his strongest. I too find a place in my heart for Life Aquatic, however, every film since–Darjeeling, Fantastic Fox, and Moonrise Kingdom…even Hotel Chevalier–are incredibly lacking in the story department. Downright boring I would argue. (Originally, where Bottle Rocket seemed sparse and understated–perhaps subtle–his later films make me rethink that perhaps Bottle Rocket was a failure on the story front just as Moonrise Kingdom does.)

    And this is of no surprise either, the cute, awkward musical interludes, editing tricks, anachronisms, and other “story/style” elements that brought such flare and excitement to a film like Rushmore (even Bottle Rocket, like when Owen Wilson has mapped out his criminal career into a plan with five year increments) play well in his early films but by the time his later films role around they’re tired and lazy ways to construct and convey real stories. Not that he needs to abandon his approach to making films, on the contrary, he just needs to double down on building rich characters that have something meaningful to convey in a real and dramatic way.

    I love fun films, movies that clearly come from a delightfully, creative place. I love his art direction and attention to detail. I love the worlds he creates.

    But, especially in the case of Moonrise Kingdom, his films are lacking any real story. It’s all posturing, narration, explanation, and showmanship to show of his elaborate diegetic world, relegating any scrap of story to be mitigated by distinctly gimmicky and overused Anderson editing and plot devices.

    This overwhelming emphasis on style and art direction (over real story) is evident in the feuds that took place during Fantastic Mr. Fox. Anderson labored over designing the characters and the sets and then directed the film remotely from Paris, throwing tantrums when his crew didn’t cooperate.

    And this problem–an emphasis on style over substance–is not unique to Wes Anderson.

    Quentin Tarantino’s films (in my opinion) have only gone downhill since Pulp Fiction, as they have devolved into what he does best (pay homage to other filmmakers by ripping off their scenes and repackaging them into a film with a much less significant and substantive story but with Tarantino’s famous dialogue).

    Many directors have distinct, visual styles that infuse every film they make. I have no problem with that, in fact I revel in it. My problem is celebrating this style, applauding this style, when there is no substance beneath it.

  9. I loved the visual symmetry in this film. Almost all of the non-dolly shots split the frame right down the middle. I like the strange dance between near-perfect symmetry and more random shots.

  10. It’s so bizarre how divisive Wes Anderson films are, even amongst those who share opinions about particular ones. For instance, I too loved Rushmore and would give it an A+. However, most others, including The Royal Tenenbaums and especially The Life Aquatic are almost F’s to me. Literally zero enjoyment from any scene. Not one laugh or even one smile. At the same time, I thought Darjeeling was reasonably entertaining.

    I just talked to someone the other day who shares my taste in all of the above movies who said Moonrise Kingdom might have been the best Wes Anderson movie he’s ever seen, so I was really excited about seeing it. However, reading your review reminds me just how polarizing all of his films are. Best to keep my expectations low, I guess, and hopefully get pleasantly surprised.

  11. Also, to Adam’s comment above, I’ve discovered that the one adjective which — if used to describe a film — almost always leads to me hating it is “quirky”.

    Little Miss Sunshine, Royal Tenenbaums, you name it. If it’s “quirky”, it usually means it’s full of little things that are supposed to be funny, which usually aren’t.

  12. I’d put Moonrise smack dab in the middle of Anderson’s work — I found it more touching than Khoi, but overall it surely ranks below Rushmore (his best) and Tennenbaums, and above Bottle Rocket (which I just rewatched) and Zisou (which I could barely watch).

    I agree it’s his most consistently beautifully art-directed — what a master of color! That alone makes me want to watch it again. I also thought it was among his funniest, up there with Rushmore for wry laughs.

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