With a Wes Anderson film, there's always a sense that something isn't right—that what you're seeing couldn't be real. Like, why does everyone in The Royal Tenenbaums act as if they live in the 1970s? Or why is no one killed in the shootout between the pirates and Team Zissou in The Life Aquatic? Then there are the eccentric characters: the enthusiastic Max Fischer of Rushmore, the delusional Dignan in Bottle Rocket. Through his distinct style—and his meticulous, colorful visual aesthetic—Anderson typifies the words "unconventional" and "idiosyncratic." Still, surreal as his works might be, they couldn't be more real when it comes to reflecting human experience. Infused with hope and humanity, they connect with us and challenge our pessimistic perceptions of life.

Moonrise Kingdom epitomizes this paradox, right from the opening sequence. It begins in a 1960s New England home filled with kitschy colors and decor—a typical Andersonian mis-en-scene. Through symmetrical tracking shots, we watch a family go about their everyday lives as if they were in a dollhouse with us peeking in. A husband and wife, Walt (Bill Murray) and Laura Bishop (Frances McDormand), sit bored in separate rooms. Elsewhere, their three young boys lie on the floor listening to a record, while their pre-teen sister, Suzy (Kara Hayward), reads a book and later appears peering through a set of binoculars. These offbeat sequences, though out of reach from reality, seem familiar, connected, nostalgic—like we've played these parts before. They also offer insight into the family we're observing—the literal divide between the parents, the album being played, the book being read—as well as the film.

Bruce Willis as Captain Short

Bruce Willis as Captain Short

The film continues in the same vein—seemingly in another world while also feeling close to home. The story, written by Anderson and Roman Coppola, centers on Suzy and Sam (Jared Gilman). Suzy comes from a seemingly functional family, but she sees through the facade—specifically her mother's secret affair—and, out of resentment, rebels. Sam, an orphan and member of the local Khaki Scouts, is similarly troubled, not because of a dysfunctional family but because he has no family at all. When the two unhappy juveniles' eyes meet backstage at a church production of Noah's Ark, it's love at first sight. They start writing each other letters, and their young love leads them to run away into the woods, where they escape their troubled world to create a new one together—the "Moonrise Kingdom"—all while a local search party hunts them down, and a fierce storm brews overhead.

Article continues below
Kara Hayward as Suzy, Jared Gilman as Sam

Kara Hayward as Suzy, Jared Gilman as Sam

This plot appears pretty conventional, but through a number of eccentricities—his trademark style—Anderson assures us it's not. In terms of tone and energy, the story settles into a Badlands, Bonnie and Clyde type narrative—minus all the killing and crime, of course—and several strange scenes set it off. From a deadpanned Bob Balaban as the Steve-Zissou-like narrator, to Suzy and Sam dancing in their underwear on the beach, to a ridiculous showdown between Sam and a group of armed Khaki Scouts, these scenes come to the screen with Anderson's quintessential quirk. Set to ironic images against an original score from Alexandre Desplat and hits from Hank Williams, the film has an otherworldliness that makes every Anderson film surreal and strange—as do its unusual characters:

  • Lazy Eye, a skinny boy with a bandage over his eye
  • The apathetic Walt (an always amusing Murray), who in one scene walks through a room with an axe and bottle of hard drink
  • Scout Master Ward, a serious and sensitive leader played by an understated Edward Norton
  • Social Services—yes, that's her real name—a brilliant cameo from Tilda Swinton
  • Bruce Willis' melancholic Captain Short, a character for whom we develop immense sympathy
  • Sam'sCousin Ben (Jason Schwartzman), who proves ridiculous enough to marry Sam and Suzy
Bill Murray as Mr. Bishop

Bill Murray as Mr. Bishop

Typical of Anderson, these exaggerated characters are both larger than life and incredibly true to life. They're so different and yet so very like us, embodying our same struggles and feelings. They draw us in and make us care. Through the paradox—the surreal being real—Moonrise doesn't prove abstract but instead feels close, concrete, and utterly human. We feel especially the reminiscence of childhood and first love, recalling the pains and pleasures of youth—rebelling against authorities, running free with no sense of responsibility. Such memories may invoke a mixed bag of feelings but in the right sort of way, as we are forced to step back and remember.

Edward Norton as Scout Master Ward

Edward Norton as Scout Master Ward

This expression of human experience doesn't stop with mere sentiment. It transcends pathos for something deeper, urging us to look beyond ourselves to find hope in a seemingly hopeless world. We see this idea—a kind of salvation—play out in Sam and Suzy's runaway, juxtaposed with a fierce storm. Interconnected both literally and figuratively, these events lead to reconciliation and redemption for the characters and their small community. Anderson doesn't overtly acknowledge any of it to be an act of God, but it's hard to see it otherwise. Could mere coincidence really bring about such transformation, leading to a rekindled marriage, to a mended family, to the fatherless finally finding a father?

Article continues below

Then again, maybe God's presence is evident. A local church—amusingly named the Church of St. Jack—is the community's place of refuge, bringing an array of characters together. And it's the place where these characters experience change. There's also strong parallelism between Moonrise and the Noah narrative of the Bible. Sam meets Suzy at a church play of Noah's Ark, and they end up in this same church to take shelter from the downpour now flooding the land. Given the outcome, the metaphor makes sense. Like Noah and his family, these characters experience salvation through divine waters; it's a baptism of sorts.

And if one sees the church as a metaphorical "ark," these individuals are not just saved out of something but also into something, namely community—or, if you will, a body. As the film plays out, we witness the power of community—how we all play a role in a bigger story. Which brings us back to the opening sequence, as the three boys on the floor listen to Benjamin Britten's The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra: Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell. The composition introduces listeners to an array of instruments that, despite their many differences, can be played together in harmony to create beautiful music. It's how Anderson imagines life can be in a kingdom to come—in a Moonrise Kingdom.

Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. We feel heavy nostalgia through Sam and Suzy's adventure. Is there anything wrong with nostalgia? What is beneficial/harmful about dwelling on the past?
  2. There are several allusions to the Noah narrative. Why do you think those are present? How might they relate to the main story at hand?
  3. What does Moonrise say about community? How does that relate to the church? Are there any connections between it and the references to the story of Noah?
  4. Despite not being a "Christian" film, what are the Christian/biblical themes? Does anything in the film run contrary to the truth of Scripture?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

Moonrise Kingdom is rated PG-13 for sexual content and smoking. A character talks about her mother cheating on her father and later confronts her about it. While kissing, a boy puts his hands on a girl's breasts after she gives him permission—the scene is intended to be awkwardly humorous. Most of the adult characters smoke cigarettes, and a boy smokes tobacco out of a pipe in a few scenes.

Our Rating
4 Stars - Excellent
Average Rating
(34 user ratings)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
PG-13 (for sexual content and smoking)
Directed By
Wes Anderson
Run Time
1 hour 34 minutes
Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward, Bruce Willis
Theatre Release
June 29, 2012 by Focus Features
Browse All Movie Reviews By: