Moonrise Kingdom as a yardstick for judging everything Wes Anderson has been up to in the last decade and a half: but that is a line of argument that just makes everybody sad, and I will attempt to limit myself on that front. But forgive me this one judgment: since Anderson's aesthetic style reached its more-or-less final state in 2001 with The Royal Tenenbaums, I don't think he's ever put that style to such intelligent, well-considered use; paraphrasing a friend who was much higher on the movie than I am, it's the first Anderson movie that would be markedly worse if it was not made in the fussy, precise mode that he's been playing with for eleven years (I consider Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, still his best films, to be significantly freer in their visual style than any of his movies to follow, but I know there are those who them all into one "Anderson has a distinct voice" basket).
Also, since most everybody I've encountered talking about the movie seems to have forgotten that since the divisive The Darjeeling Limited, Anderson also made the significantly less-divisive Fantastic Mr. Fox, I would like to point out that you can't call it a comeback if someone has been here for years.
As with Tenenbaums, the film takes the explicit form of a fable: we are introduced to the film by an unnamed, onscreen narrator (Bob Balaban, doing a perfectly wonderful job of giving human shape to Anderson's characteristically deadpan sense of humor; I would go so far as to call it one of the best performances ever in an Anderson film, and I don't think it's an accident that it's in service of a wholly functional role that doesn't even necessarily deserve to be described as a "character") who tells us the time period and physical location - 1965 on a fictional New England summer resort island - and further informs us with a singular lack of urgency that a massive storm is going to land in three days. It's certainly a bold opening gambit, and one that makes Moonrise Kingdom perhaps the most "distant" of all Anderson's films, even his stop-motion cartoon about debonair foxes: particularly the bland mention of the storm, which has if anything the opposite of a ticking time-bomb effect, given how stubbornly the plot to follow refuses to speed up in any way and before very long, though we're nominally aware of a black cloud looming over the scenario, it's hard to square that with the utter lack of tension in the movie, and this, combined with the very specific setting in time, and the typical Anderson visual geometry, which is cranked to previously unseen heights here, gives the film the overall impression of a re-enactment, something that is more profoundly aware of its own constructed nature than anything previous in the director's singularly self-aware vision.
But in a way that works. I can't quite put my finger on why: after The Darjeeling Limited (which I cooled towards rather fiercely) and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (which I never liked), the solution for Anderson should not have been to double-down and intensify the artificiality of his filmmaking, and yet it pays huge dividends for Moonrise Kingdom, perhaps in part because the story itself (co-written by Anderson and Roman Coppola) is less overtly "significant" than anything else Anderson has directed since Bottle Rocket, perhaps because for all the intense stylisation of the camerawork and costume design (the latter by Kasia Walicka-Maimone, amazing work that clearly indicates a particular class and era without showing off in a period picture way,and fits into the director's typical use of a limited color palette without feeling so fussily color-coded), a great deal of the film takes place in natural locations, meaning that there is not so much a uniformity of aesthetic style as there is a tension between the expected center-punched compositions and some really hardcore austere lateral tracking shots on the one hand, and the inherent raggedness of natural environments on the other.
Back to the plot: in short, we have a couple of preteens, Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) of the local island Khaki Scout troop, and Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward), the daughter of two emotionally detached lawyers, Laura and Walt (Frances McDormand and Bill Murray). The kids fell in love the summer before and have made plans to run off together this summer and build a life away from all their personal traumas - Sam is an orphan with no friends, Suzy's family is past disintegration, and it's solely inertia that's keeping it together. Their flight naturally rouses a huge search, led by Laura Bishop's secret lover, police captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), and Scoutmaster Ward (Edward Norton) of the Khaki Scouts. Many other children and adults enter into the situation, just to make it all the more complicated; though Sam and Suzy are very much the leads (and they give a pair of damned impressive performances, Hayward especially), it's undoubtedly an ensemble film, and some of the cameos are too much fun to give away, even though the opening credits already do so.
I will confess that I don't believe in the glorious truth of this preteen romance as much as Anderson and Coppola apparently do; but there's a tininess and intimacy to the way it is presented that sells it for the most part. That's not to say the script is without its problems, some of them quite significant - I would give just about anything to have the Laura/Captain Sharp adultery subplot banished, for all the good it ends up doing for the movie - but in general it's so stripped down to the essentials of a lovers on the run picture that it almost can't not work.
The style around it is as fussy as anything Anderson has ever done, but instead of being overstuffed, as virtually all of his movies have been, for good and ill, Moonrise Kingdom is mostly delicate: this is clear from the opening 360° pan around the Bishop house, which is at once mercilessly precise in its geometric formalism, and serves also to emphasise, heavily, how empty the house is, the polar opposite of the bric-a-brac explosion of the Tenenbaum home, for example. It's more like a movie of a Faberge egg, ornate but sleek, and this pairs exceedingly well with the arch post-Kennedy WASPiness of the milieu (I genuinely do not think the writers grasp that "Shakusky" is an out-of-place surname, though it recalls Max Fischer, the unobtrusively Jewish kid in a WASP enclave of Rushmore), and with the emotionally distant, "enacted" quality of the story itself. By which I mean, Gilman and Hayward are called upon to play not just children feeling genuine adult feelings, but also children self-consciously play-acting at adulthood, and this feeling of personal life as a stage production (which also recalls Rushmore) is very much the heart of the movie, with its repeated looks at the most presentational music of Benjamin Britten, the ones where he foregrounds the act of composing or performing, and the bookending of the drama between two amateur plays. In between, we are treated to a single original piece of music, a mammoth suite by Alexandre Desplat that is by turns bombastic, melancholy, and playful, and always, always delicate, arch, trivial, and the most Wes Anderson-ey piece of music ever composed. It is also one of the most gorgeously satisfying film scores I've heard in literally years, and this comes from tapping into the same half-ironic, mostly-detached, generally sweet mood of the film itself (it also gets the royal treatment during the end credits, broken down in the manner of Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, which itself opens the movie).
The film is an extremely fragile construction, therefore, and in this it perhaps references its central couple (for what could be more fragile than young love not approved by the parents?), perhaps stands as a commentary by Anderson on his aesthetic sensibility, and perhaps is just meant to be an arch trifle in which the construction itself is what we're meant to admire. If it's the last of these, I don't know that I can complain, not when the product is so ingenious - indeed, the fact that is conscious of its own triviality is, like I said, part of what makes it so much breezier and in a peculiar, idiosyncratic way, more humane, than most of the director's recent output. I wish I could love it; something holds me at arm's length and I cannot, but for all that, I am charmed by its simplicity and amused by its artifice - there is something of the 18th Century in its pleasure at being an elegant contrivance - and I think, somehow, that being kept distant from the material isn't even necessarily something that hurts it. It's ambivalently delightful, but delightful indeed.