Christopher Orr, writing for The Atlantic, says that Moonrise Kingdom is Wes Anderson’s best feature film since Rushmore, in no small measure because, like Rushmore, “it takes as its primary subject matter odd, precocious children, rather than the damaged and dissatisfied adults they will one day become.” It’s an interesting claim but, I think, completely misguided, in that it misses the central fact of Anderson’s work: there is no meaningful distinction between his children and his adults.
There’s a curious equality between Anderson’s characters, regardless of age, as we see in, for example, the relation between the Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman characters in Rushmore. The adults are lost in a world they cannot quite seem to master, and so are the children, whose precocity puts them in adult situations (seeking self-reliance, or projecting long-term plans, or yearning for romance), but who find themselves no more master of the situation than Anderson’s adults. Indeed, Anderson’s vision of humanity is of a set of lost, gifted children, even if those children have lived long enough to appear to be adults. Dignan with his elaborate life plans in Bottle Rocket is a figure of charm and pathos because he is clearly not entirely up to the challenge of the world; the grown-up child prodigies in The Royal Tennenbaums are still fundamentally juvenile, as is their father; the grown sons in The Darjeeling Limited never transcend their childhood; and Schwartzman’s Max in Rushmore is a boy, but his actions, ambitions, and desires are like those of an adult. When we see him on his journey what we’re really seeing is the hopeful, bewildered, and slightly sad child that Anderson sees within every adult — the situation is just made more visually explicit because of the age of the character.
Anderson’s adults are just kids who have been around a while, accumulating disappointments and trying to maintain some semblance of control. This yearning for control appears in all of the lists, flowcharts, and plans characters come up with, as well as their maps and collections. When Anderson shows us children as protagonists, the sense of precocity comes from the fact that they essentially undertake adult actions. But in a way they’re not children, they’re what Anderson sees when he sees adults: people whose ambitions and plans and hopes are charming but also frail, people around whom hangs a slight aura of pathos.
We see this child/adult conflation everywhere in Moonrise Kingdom. Many scenes we’re familiar with from war movies—the ambush of the protagonist, the uniformed scout who rallies his peers to defend one of their own, the fumbling romance between the 12 year old male and female leads on the beach—are just defamiliarized adult moments, in which the age of the characters makes us think of the vulnerability of the characters more than we would had they been played as adult scenes. We get a sense, too, of the playing of roles, of people aspiring to be what they wish they could be, and this is something fundamental to Anderson’s characters regardless of age.
Anderson’s much-praised visual sense is connected to his sense of the essential identity of adults and children. Just as his treatment of children as adults allows him to show us slightly overmatched people, whose innocence and optimism come already paired with a little pathos and tarnish, Anderson’s visual sense constantly combines a kind of gee-whiz coolness with the faded, the obsolete, or the broken.
When Anderson has the budget, everything in his movies is designed deliberately. This deliberateness is what Anderson loved about the stop-motion animation of The Fantastic Mr. Fox— every coffee cup and pencil had to be made deliberately, nothing could be taken for granted. In Moonrise Kingdom, everything comes out of a period ethos, and is meant, says Anderson, to look like it could come out of a Norman Rockwell print. But it’s not just a matter of period detail, or of Rockwellian Americana: everything is tweaked just a bit to make it not quite elegant or awe-inspiring. Uniforms come with too-short trousers; the cut of a winter coat is slightly clumsy; the fabric of a dress looks a little faded. It’s not Rockwell, strictly speaking: it’s as if Norman Rockwell had a yard sale for all the things that had become just slightly too shabby to keep. This is significant: it shows us that what Anderson is after isn’t a kind of nostalgia for innocence; instead, he wants to show us innocence already tarnished, already touched by disappointment or pathos. Just like his children, who are always as damaged as they are precocious, the objects with which Anderson fills the screen are always already scuffed and not quite adequate to the demands of life.
This touch of pathos is particularly present in when Anderson trots out technology. The old record players and cameras and tape recorders in Moonrise Kingdom, like those in The Royal Tenenbaums or The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, are often things that would, when they were new, have been high end gadgetry—but as an audience, we can’t help but see them as things that have been outclassed or rendered obsolete, even when we’re watching what is notionally a period piece (Moonrise Kingdom is set in the 1960s, but really exists in Anderson’s ahistorical fantasy space). It’s that touch of pathos again, that sense that we’re all just the left-overs from some unreachable innocence.
The sense of lost innocence comes into play in the final scene of Moonrise Kingdom, where we see our romantic leads, Sam and Suzy, together again. Sam is painting an imagined recreation of the one place where the were closest to happiness: an island inlet so insignificant it has only a number, not a name, where, on the run, they’d camped out for a moment. It was a place where Sam put all of his scouting skills, all his little tricks to control the world, into play, but the would-be Eden they created there was doomed from the start, and destroyed twice over: first by the authority figures who capture them, then by a storm so violent it wiped the inlet away. This is the always lost innocence, the hopeless, pathos-ridden attempt at Eden that haunts Anderson and his characters. In Sam’s painting, he’s able to recreate the lost world that never quite was, and he’s even able to give it a name, “Moonrise Kingdom.” But of course the real innocence never quite came into being, and is lost forever, and the painting, naïve and amateurish, is no substitute, despite Sam’s best attempts. This sense of loss, and of our fundamental lostness and weakness, is at the core of Anderson’s art, and at the bottom of his sense of adults as lost children, and children as already-lost adults.