Wes Anderson should always make movies featuring characters who are pubescent or younger — like Rushmore, which until this film was his best. That limits his range, perhaps, but who else can capture with such chilling accuracy that fragile period between childhood and disillusionment, the time when the novelty of true love overwhelms the heart with its immensity and futility?
The stricken youth here is Sam (Jared Gilman), a somber 12-year-old orphan enduring a stint of summer camp with the "Khaki Scouts" on a quaint island off the New England coast in 1965. Unlike Max in Rushmore, here the object of Sam's ardor, Suzy (Kara Hayward), is not too old for him, but the same age. It doesn't make any difference. In both cases, their love is socially unacceptable.
Nonetheless, the underaged pair are determined to fulfill their destiny and arrange to run away from the disapproving real world to a place where they are free to live happily ever after. This plan liberates Anderson's imagination as well. Unlike The Royal Tennenbaums, the grown-ups here seem merely extraneous rather than existentially unhinged. Anderson shoots both the regimented scout camp and Suzy's equally regimented home with clever tracking shots but not much originality. You can tell his heart is elsewhere. Usually he can find a sympathetic adult persona in Bill Murray, but not so this time. It says a lot that Bruce Willis as Captain Sharp, the island's "sad" police chief, makes a deeper impression than an uncharacteristically inert Murray as Suzy's father, Mr. Bishop.
And so the pair trek across the island, pursued for the most part by Sam's fellow scouts, and in their time together, equipped with various artifacts of the age like Suzy's portable turntable (Anderson's soundtrack, as usual, is esoteric and impeccable) and Sam's (perhaps anachronistic) coonskin cap, they innocently tap into the spirit of an age on the cusp of the counter-culture and political anarchy. The tone is enchanted but not nostalgic, an effect enhanced by the low-affect acting, the whimsically designed mise-en-scene, and the deadpan editing where scenes end just before, or after, you think they should. The film's oneiric look, even more evocative than the painstaking animation of Fantastic Mr. Fox, enhances the mood, with images combining the overripe colors of 50-year-old snapshots, the simplicity and magic of children's book illustrations, and the nostalgic intimacy of old dollhouses and toy chests.
Beneath the whimsy, absurdity, and nascent paganism, though, lingers a premonition of loss and corruption. Violence breaks out, arrows fly, drawing real blood, a reminder that when kids are left to their own devices they can just as easily turn out like the castaways in Lord of the Flies as the Lost Boys in Peter Pan. And then a hurricane heads their way, a pathetic fallacy that should be trite but which is goofy enough to arouse a nagging sense of dread.
Having so exquisitely created the lost paradise of Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson hesitates to puncture the illusion. Hayward, with her lopsided face and stern, defiant eyes, and Gilman, with his not quite fully formed but already deeply melancholic features, seem ready for the transition. Tragically, but triumphantly, Anderson is not.