In Sylvia Plath’s poem “The Babysitters,” two nubile girls escape from the white-pillared mansion of their employers and take off in a green boat. They steal a sugared ham from the icebox, read aloud and float cork dolls on the ocean. The dolls bob up and down in the thick salt water, emblems of the inescapable reality of growing up.
At The Michigan
If the babysitter was Wes Anderson and the oceanic voyage his quest to reclaim childhood, then “Moonrise Kingdom” is his evanescent dollhouse. Set in a summer camp chivalrously christened Camp Ivanhoe, the film spends 90 percent of its time on two young “troubled” lovers who parade their goldenrod love through storm, sea and calamity. Part children’s adventure story, part New Wave rendezvous, “Moonrise” is earnestly filtered through the lens of a burgeoning adolescent, highlighting the troubles of preserving innocence while hurtling into adulthood.
Outwardly, “Moonrise Kingdom” is a vision. The film’s aesthetic is Anderson’s most successful to date. The miniature tent spaces, lit with the sepia tone of a crinkled Polaroid photograph, marked with every square centimeter the ache of loneliness. The people are decorated just as pristinely – plaid on plaid, every hair pleated, every wrinkle smoothed.
But where “Moonrise” falters is in its execution: The dolls in the dollhouse just won’t do what they’re supposed to. Anderson’s miniature worlds, so tidily arranged, are in effect ruined by the young actors who reside in them. Scenes designed to induce prolonged feelings of melancholy instead feel laughable and inauthentic.
Why is this? After all, it’s not like it hasn’t been done before. We’ve come to recognize – even love – the prototypical “Wes Anderson” character: earnest, filled with wanderlust, possessing a vaguely childlike/foreign nickname. Margot. Dignan. Steve Zissou. We’d think that “Moonrise” ’s newly minted protagonists – real children who act as adults (rather than the other way around) – would ably round out the hallowed cast.
But the issue when working with child actors, particularly ones with little experience in the cinematic realm, is that it’s difficult to attain Anderson’s brand of droll tonality without sounding too affected.
Newcomer Kara Hayward, who plays the female protagonist Suzy, particularly struggles with this task. Often her lines – already slightly asinine (“I want to go on adventures, I think. Not get stuck in one place.”) – run flat, and her intonations blur over. Mouth shut, the 12-year-old Hayward is a splendor, imbued with the kind of ’60s afterglow British mod revivalists would have gone gaga over. But mouth open, she’s kind of a dud.
Auteur theory dictates that a film be executed just so, and Anderson falls on the pickier end of that spectrum. In arranging the objects, yes, he wholly succeeds. But can living beings – particularly children – be directed that way? What’s more, should they? After all, adolescence is a messy thing. Perhaps a film about adolescence ought to embrace that messiness.
That’s not to say that Anderson’s films don’t contain some internal devastation. They do. But while the destruction of Anderson’s universe is the calculated disaster – the cracking of the mirror into equal, jagged fragments – the graduation from childhood isn’t quite so mathematical. Human beings have never been that mathematical.
More and more, it feels like Anderson would prefer to work with animatronics, porcelain faces as pure and shiny as if they were incubated in eggshells. That’s perhaps why “Fantastic Mr. Fox” ranks so highly in the critical discourse. There were no people to get in the way of Anderson’s vigilantly curated display cases.