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Retro Rental: If You Like ‘Moonrise Kingdom’ You’ll Fall in Love With ‘Pirates of Penzance’

Retro Rental: 'Moonrise Kingdom' and 'The Pirates of Penzance'
Feature Films/Shepperton Studios

[Each week, inspired by what's in theaters or in the news or even just by random firings of neurons, 'Retro Rental,' by film critic James Rocchi, looks at an older film on disc or download that links up to the here-and-now ...]

Wes Anderson‘s ‘Moonrise Kingdom,’ opening this week in limited release, is what we’ve come to expect from Anderson, the mind behind ‘Rushmore,’ ‘The Royal Tenenbaums,’ and ‘The Fantastic Mr. Fox’ — somehow completely artificial and entirely heartfelt, loaded with dry punchlines that, somehow, bring tears to your eyes. The story of two 12-year-olds who embark on a runaway adventure of love, the entire film takes place on an Island called Penzance; that’s not a name picked at random.

The real Penzance is a town on the South-West tip of England, renowned for its past as a resort town and port. What cemented Penzance in pop-culture history, though, is its title role in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance,” their 1879 light opera. And if you look at both ‘Moonrise Kingdom’ and ‘The Pirates of Penzance’ — notably the 1983 film version that brought the Tony-Award winning 1980 Broadway version to the big screen — you don’t have to squint too hard to see the similarities.

(Normally, recommending musical theater to a broad audience is kind of a recipe for disaster — but then again, you’re reading this because you’re interested in ‘Moonrise Kingdom,’ and that tells me you’re the kind of person who doesn’t mind taking a risk, and who doesn’t flip the coffee table in their living room over if the people on their flatscreen start singing, so we’re gonna keep going here…)

Much like Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward) fall in love from their different worlds and escape, ‘Pirates’ kicks off, plot-wise, when the kind and fairly ineffectual pirate Frederick (Rex Smith) falls for Penzance resident Mabel (Linda Ronstadt). And just like Sam and Suzy running off, Frederick and Mabel’s love throws various communities into a tizzy. Frederick’s ex-pirate brethren (led by Kevin Kline as The Pirate King, in a performance of swashbuckling charm and comedy tomfoolery that Johnny Depp will never equal for all of his slurring, stumbling and Sparrow-ing) chase Frederick. The local constabulary (led by the Sergeant of Police, played by Tony Azito, whose lament that “The policeman’s lot is not a happy one” might as well be the theme song for Bruce Willis’ Capt. Sharp in ‘Moonrise’) comes for Mabel. Naturally though, there are other interested parties in pursuit.

Of course, Suzy and Sam aren’t constantly singing, and Suzy’s father (played by Bill Murray) isn’t a Major-General like Mabel’s father is, and there are plenty of other differences. ‘Moonrise Kingdom,’ for all its charms, is awfully low on swordfighting, while ‘The Pirates of Penzance’ doesn’t feature its young lovers dancing on the beach to ’60s François Hardy songs — but the artificially real (or, put conversely, really artificial) sense of heightened love and youth’s innocence in the face of real-world complications make both stories what they are, and for the better. Anderson himself has noted ‘Pirates’ as an influence on ‘Moonrise,’ and while the two are as different, as our British friends say, as chalk and cheese, they’re both at heart about young love on the run, whether you’re a Khaki Scout or a Pirate. As Anderson knows — and Gilbert and Sullivan knew — now and then, a little gloriously phony showbiz razzle-dazzle is the only way to show the glory and the story of love.

(‘The Pirates of Penzance’ is on DVD and Amazon instant video; the 1980 stage version the film was adapted from is on Netflix Instant.)

James Rocchi is currently a film critic for MSN Movies and an entertainment correspondent for The Toronto Star. He has previously written for The San Francisco Chronicle, Aol’s Cinematical, American Movie Classics and Redbox. He is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics of America and the Los Angeles Film Critic’s Association.

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