Wes Anderson’s previous movie was “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” an adaptation of the classic Roald Dahl children’s book. It makes sense that his new film, “Moonrise Kingdom,” feels like a children’s book, even if it is an original story.
The time is 1965, the setting a fictional New England island. Twelve-year-old Sam (Jared Gilman) has vanished from his Scout camp. He’s an orphan whose opportunities with foster families have reached their end.
At the same moment, Suzy (Kara Hayward) has run away from home. It’s no coincidence; the adolescents will rendezvous in the forests of New Penzance, armed with food, camping gear and some books to read. Also, Suzy brought her cat.
This charming (but not sugary) escapade will resonate with anybody who ever read “My Side of the Mountain” or other tales of kids escaping on their own.
Anderson (who wrote the script with Roman Coppola) understands the kid mind, the importance of books and record albums, the need to give order to the limited world of childhood so that it makes some kind of sense.
The approach is realistic enough that it briefly acknowledges adolescent sexual curiosity, too, which may be the most surprising thing about the movie. Sometimes Anderson’s movies (including the splendid “Rushmore” and “The Royal Tenenbaums”) take place in a sealed-off neverland, where earthier feelings are left off screen.
There are grownup issues, too. In fact, the adults are illuminated by how they react to the disappearance. Suzy’s parents (Bill Murray, Frances McDormand) are having troubles, and the local sheriff (Bruce Willis) is a lonely bachelor with his own problems.
Everybody’s hunting for the missing kids, including an earnest Scout master (Edward Norton) and his troop of khaki-clad charges. Jason Schwartzman pops up as a Scout functionary, and Tilda Swinton appears as a rather fearsome representative of social services. All of these actors are fun to watch, although they are strictly supporting the two young people.
The child actors here are uncanny, rather than technically seamless, and more memorable because of that. They simply look and sound like these kids should look and sound (the boy could be the 12-year-old version of Roger Ebert).
Anderson’s approach is as symmetrical and carefully designed as ever. We come to know this little island, thanks to helpful maps and the occasional onscreen narration by Bob Balaban: He reminds us that a hurricane is headed for New Penzance, which will give the story a fittingly stormy conclusion.
I felt a falling-off in the second half of the movie, as though Anderson and Coppola had a difficult time deciding where to take the wonderful set-up. But “Moonrise Kingdom” pulls it off, thanks to the abundance of feeling for childhood realities, and their importance in the moment.
“Moonrise Kingdom” (3 stars)
Two 12-year-olds run away to be together on a New England island in 1965, a wonderful set-up that gets a charming (but not sugary) treatment from “Rushmore” director Wes Anderson. The grown-up cast includes Bill Murray and Bruce Willis, but they rightly play second fiddle to the children, whose imaginative world is accurately created.
Rated: PG-13 for subject matter.
Showing: Guild 45, Pacific Place.