Popcorn and Inspiration: ‘Moonrise Kingdom’: Sweet Nostalgia for American Innocence

August 13, 2020 Updated: August 13, 2020

PG-13 | | Comedy, Drama, Romance | 29 June 2012 (USA)

World-renowned acting coach Michael Chekhov (nephew of playwright Anton Chekhov) said that the main thing missing from most modern theater productions is “atmosphere.”

By “atmosphere,” he meant that rare, mystical feeling generated by all great works of art. A work with atmosphere becomes a world unto itself and creates a longing in the soul, as well as a desire to revisit. It’s as if a living being with personality inhabits or overshadows that statue, play, book, painting, and so on.

Director Wes Anderson created a bit of this type of atmosphere in 2012’s “Moonrise Kingdom.”

boy in coonskin cap paints a picture in "Moonrise Kingdom"
Sam (Jared Gilman) is a gifted young draftsman in “Moonrise Kingdom.” (Focus Features)

The time is 1965, and the location is mostly Rhode Island, with some Narragansett thrown in. Twelve-year-old Sam (Jared Gilman), an orphan in foster care,  goes AWOL from the Khaki Scouts. Twelve-year-old Suzy (Kara Hayward), daughter of estranged parents and lover of girl-centric adventure novels, runs away from home.

They had met by chance in a community pageant and, to describe it in today’s terms, took down each other’s info and started writing snail-mail letters to each other. After a year of that, they decide to meet in a field.

girl and boy in a field in "Moonrise Kingdom"
Suzy (Kara Hayward) and Sam (Jared Gilman) meet in a field to go camping together, in “Moonrise Kingdom.” (Focus Features)

They have a wondrous adventure, at once mundane and magical. They camp and cook. He demonstrates his Scout skills—he’s got a pocket knife, air rifle, and a Davy Crockett coonskin cap! She looks pretty in pink, brings a kitten, and reads books to him. They jump in the lake, dance to her portable record player, and attempt a kiss. It’s immensely adorable.

boy climbs cliff in "Moonrise Kingdom"
Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward) go hiking and camping together, in “Moonrise Kingdom.” (Focus Features)

Meanwhile, Captain Sharp, the sheriff (Bruce Willis), and Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton), as well the girl’s hysterical parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), go searching for Sam and Suzy. Also joining the search is a rather vicious Scout pack with a mob mentality. A major rainstorm rolls in!

Three men, one woman in front of police station in "Moonrise Kingdom"
(L–R) Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Edward Norton, and Bruce Willis in “Moonrise Kingdom.” (Focus Features)

Someone gets hit by lightning, and survives! It gets rather chaotic all around. A bearded Bob Balaban plays the narrator.

bearded man with cap in a field in "Moonrise Kingdom"
Bob Balaban plays the narrator in “Moonrise Kingdom.” (Focus Features)

Reminiscent of Anderson’s 2009 “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” and also of the 1986 rite-of-passage film “Stand by Me,” it is, however, a bit confusing at first. One wonders what kind of film it’s trying to be. Is it a comedy? Is it for children only? It’s obviously very trademark-Anderson-stylized.

boy scouts in "Moonrise Kingdom"
The predatory Khaki Scout pack in “Moonrise Kingdom.” (Focus Features)

Kids will love it certainly, but for their parents, it turns out to be a rather heartwarming walk down memory lane. “Moonrise Kingdom” re-creates a child’s-eye view of the early 1960s, when the ’60s still contained much of the ’50s.

girl and boy in woods approached by bicycler in "Moonrise Kingdom"
Sam (Jared Gilman) takes aim at an intruder menacing his friend Suzy (Kara Hayward), in “Moonrise Kingdom.” (Focus Features)

It unpacks and dusts off childhood memories of tents, treehouses,  secret maps, campfires, innocent conversations, and performing theater in grade-school assemblies. It’s a magical lens that captures the joy of first-ever experiences, and purity. And all around is atmosphere.

girls in a dressing room in "Moonrise Kingdom"
Girls put on makeup in preparation for the pageant in “Moonrise Kingdom.” (Focus Features)

The two newcomer 12-year-olds, Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, have great kid-chemistry, and this movie was about as strong a foundation as one could have for each of them to eventually become a permanent fixture in the acting industry.

With this stellar cast, of course, the acting is exceptional except for the normally side-splitting Bill Murray and brilliant Frances McDormand who don’t appear to be bringing their A-games.

Wes Anderson’s humor manifests often in his use of well-timed sight gags, but what’s he ultimately trying to say here? The children are loners and outcasts, and the earnest, brutally truthful Sam with his inquisitive mind and hilarious self-loathing is the movie’s main attraction. Suzy is occasionally (and hilariously) disturbingly violent, as the pursuing mob-mentality scouts are unfortunate enough to experience.

Both Sam and Suzy are, in the awkward and universal ways of 12-year-olds, morose and self-aware, but they’re fairly OK with all of that; each has a strong sense of, if not purpose, then destiny.  The parents and adults, in contrast, are compromised, sad, and clueless.

Maybe it’s as simple as this: If you take a risk to follow your destiny, you’ll discover true love waiting at the end of the road. Or maybe in a field. It’s definitely inspiring. And all around is atmosphere.

An inlet near Rhode Island in "Moonrise Kingdom"
The magical cove where the young couple go camping and swimming in “Moonrise Kingdom.” (Focus Features)

‘Moonrise Kingdom’
Director: Wes Anderson
Starring: Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Jason Schwartzman, Bob Balaban, Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward
Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 1 hour, 34 minutes
Release Date: June 29, 2012
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Follow Mark on Twitter: @FilmCriticEpoch