'Moonrise Kingdom' Review

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Focus Features

'Moonrise Kingdom' is the most Wes Anderson movie ever made. Only 'Fantastic Mr. Fox' is less connected to reality, and that's just because foxes don't really talk. It takes place in an alternate universe nostalgic for a dozen different storybook childhoods, none of which ever existed, but are presented with a precision that bespeaks a world that is fully developed...somewhere.

It is mannered and preposterous, but hilarious, sweet, melancholy, invigorating and gorgeous to look at and to listen to. It is Wes Anderson's best movie since 'Rushmore,' though more confident and complete of a film than anything he's done. It is (deep breath before I say this) my favorite film of the year so far.

The film begins with a lecture (emerging from a plastic, portable record player) about the symphonic technique of variation, how an orchestra takes a theme and breaks it down to expand on it. By the end of the story each of the adult characters will have had a moment to react and add to the central event: a boy and girl on a tiny Northeastern island have run off to let love conquer all. The police captain, scout master, social services director, girls' parents and an impending major storm have other plans.

The bulk of the picture is a love letter to first love, but it is neither mushy, cutesy or mocking. It is, miraculously, pure, primarily by keeping our leads off-topic. (I mean, they're twelve, they aren't really in love.) They stay busy by pitching tents, climbing rocks, dancing to French pop songs, painting, taking inventory, discussing literature (poems don't have to rhyme, you know, they just have to be artistic) and fighting off the deputized Khaki Scouts sent to retrieve them. It's all very funny, but it isn't silly, because the dialogue is incredibly clever and the look of the picture, well, the look of the picture is, of course, the real star.

Shot on Super 16mm and mixing outdoor long lens shots with his usual short lens interiors, there isn't a frame or cut in this film that's not there by design. Nothing is left to chance or discovery in 'Moonrise Kingdom.' From its score to little red dots on the cutaway map, this film is as densely layered and stitched together as a Bach piano concerto. But zany. A kid gets struck by lighting and his tennis ball container of nickels explodes all around him and his face gets black from soot – before he dusts himself and runs to safety.

One can spot a Wes Anderson movie a mile away, more so than perhaps any other director working today. His heavily art-directed frames have a fastidiousness that borders on the obsessive compulsive but - and this is what's key - the hand-painted signs, false magazine covers and absurd costumes tell as much of the story as the words coming out of the actors' mouths. Luckily, the plastic 1960s relics don't just scratch the itch of a design fetish, they construct a world similar to the ones in our memories (if we're old enough to have been there, or to at least come across these fossils in a grandparent's closet), but exaggerated to the point of absurdity. The summer play put up in “St. Jack's Church” must have had a six figure costume budget. (Yet each of those hand-sewn bird leotards, so perfect in their imperfection, have crack a whip of remembrance across the screen.)

John Ford made Westerns, Martin Scorsese makes gangster pictures, Wes Anderson makes...whatever the hell it is that Wes Anderson makes. His films evoke the conflicting emotions of wistful nostalgia and quixotic tenacity. His films are about young people, even when the characters aren't young. They are driven by passions, oftentimes self-detrimental, but always pushing for some sort of triumph.

The jokes, and there are many, will warm even those who find Anderson's style to be completely overbearing. Bruce Willis and Edward Norton are really funny, even upstaging Bill Murray at times. (But no one upstages Jason Schwartzman – he's unbeatable in his short sequence.)

I've never disliked any of Wes Anderson's films, but some ('The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,' 'The Royal Tenenbaums') I find to be merely good. 'Moonrise Kingdom' just sings. It is a genuine work of art – but playful enough that no one in their right mind could ever take issue with it.

Rating Meter 10

'Moonrise Kingdom' hits theaters on May 25th

Jordan Hoffman was the movies editor at Hearst Digital’s UGO for four years and currently contributes to SlashFilm, MTV’s NextMovie and StarTrek.com. He’s made two marginally successful independent movies, is a member of the New York Film Critics Online and was named IFC’s Ultimate Film Fanatic of the NorthEast in 2004. Follow him on Twitter at @JHoffman6.

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