Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom opens with Benjamin Britten’s “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.” The tactic, like the music, is inspired. The kids of the Bishop family listen to the vinyl LP, and their imaginations already surpass their bored parents — weary, cheating Laura (Frances McDormand) and dud hubby Walt (Bill Murray), a man so irked by life that he vents his spleen on a tree.
Britten’s music, with its surging Baroque theme by Henry Purcell, becomes a tonic anthem of childhood freedom on the rise (reinforced amusingly by Mozart, Saint-Saëns, Schubert, Hank Williams, and Françoise Hardy). The key freedom-finders are bookish, innocently alluring Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward), a dreamy nymphet, and the orphan Sam (Jared Gilman). Plucky, clever Sam smokes a pipe, takes no guff, and is treated as an outcast by his conformist scouting pack on an island where organized scouting seems to be the only industry.
Loner-dude Sam is by far the best scout. He sets off solo to walk the old Chickchaw Harvest Migration trail, despite a rising storm. Considered a runaway, he is pursued. Suzy finds him first, and their budding romance on the run is like a shared merit-badge project. It enlarges the film emotionally (it’s not quite kinky — more like watching Peter Pan fall for Tinkerbell).
Anderson shot their wilderness adventure in Rhode Island as a storybook vision. He uses images cut precisely to music, softly articulated colors, and split-screen shots like facing pages. A floating, deadpan comedy (more chuckles than guffaws), the movie is about dreamers who face and outrace their fears. At times it is almost a whimsical Yankee cousin of the children’s river trip in The Night of the Hunter, with monster Robert Mitchum replaced by the fussy spirit of Clifton Webb in Mr. Scoutmaster.
The grown-ups are way past childhood but not fully adult. Bruce Willis plays a perplexed, decent cop. Ed Norton is a scoutmaster given to comments such as, “Jiminy Cricket, he flew the coop!” Tilda Swinton is a mean social worker, and Harvey Keitel a scouting chief who looks like Stalin trying to be Teddy Roosevelt. The adult actors don’t have very much to do, but the elegant styling (a fabulism of intricate moods) and Anderson’s script with Roman Coppola binds the performers into a fine ensemble.
The time is the 1960s but with a ’20s-to-’50s aura. Moonrise Kingdom seems to evoke James Thurber and Richard Brautigan on a canoe trip, looking for Huck Finn. Of all the fastidiously quirky Anderson movies (Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Darjeeling Limited, etc.), this is the one with the most supple flow, the most subtle grip, the shaggiest rhythm of charm. Please, stay through the end credits.