If Wes Anderson is the corduroy Michael Bay, then Moonrise Kingdom is his Transformers: Dark of the Moon. That's meant as high praise, even if it makes The Life Aquatic Anderson's ... Bad Boys II, right?
Like Bay, Anderson is a polarizing director who runs at one speed: super-wonky insistence. And like Bay, Anderson doesn't want to full-frame immerse you so much as overwhelm you, to 40-mm-anamorphic your ass. But instead of clattering metal and shouted dialogue, Bay's usual sack of claw hammers, Anderson's cudgel of choice is a fuzzy Linus blanket, one as soft as the director's tailored velvet suits. (Even when someone dies in an Anderson movie, the impact, by design, registers minimally; at his most brutal, he'll smack you with a bag of Nerf balls.) His trick is that he wraps that blanket (a nerd-porn fabric of DVD-freeze-frame-ready compositions) around the thorny anxieties of childhood (the kind we carry into adulthood).
These he usually centers on absent or withholding fathers and the unlikely figures who replace them (as one Web commenter wrote after the arrival of Anderson's previous film, 2009's The Fantastic Mr. Fox: "WTF did Wes Anderson's father do to him?"), and so it is in Moonrise Kingdom. Joining the ranks of Anderson lost boys such as Rushmore's Max Fischer and the spatting brothers of The Darjeeling Limited is Sam, the purposeful orphan who triggers the action here. After a tween-torrid yearlong correspondence with a slightly older, more than slightly taller girl named Suzy (a romance fast-capped in a short, deadpan, deeply funny montage), Sam bolts his scout troop to rendezvous with her. Those who object: his fellow Khaki Scouts; Suzy's parents (Anderson veteran Bill Murray and Frances McDormand, both grim, both perfect); and an authority known only by the name of the agency she represents, Social Services (a looming Tilda Swinton). Those perhaps in favor: local lawman Sharp (a mesmerizingly denatured Bruce Willis) and Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton, acting as a kind of Anderson surrogate).
No actor is natural in an Anderson movie, so the open-faced first-timeness of Jared Gilman's performance as Sam works fine in the early going. When he's united with fellow newcomer Kara Hayward, though, both actors bloom. That's not simple when the task is to render believable the almost Dragnet-flat declarations of Anderson's dialogue. As usual, his characters here speak in uninflected truths. They read your mind, hear that little prayer you say in the dark that the people onscreen will just goddamn say the things you know they know, the things you know they want to say. The magic of Anderson at his best — and this, thanks largely to the two teens at its center, is very nearly it — is that his characters still find complications to weave through even when there are no secrets among them. You'll think you want more of the adults, the familiar stars. That's just habit, and the feeling goes away fast. Any more of them and the music of the thing would falter.
And music is, not for the first time, on Anderson's mind. In something like a parody of his standard horizontal pans, he opens Moonrise with an extended visual exploration of Suzy's family home, set to Benjamin Britten's "The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra" (complete with Peanuts-voiced narration). As the credits roll 90 minutes later, another child narrator deconstructs Alexandre Desplat's pastoral, rhythmic score, one instrument at a time. It's a witty acknowledgment of what Anderson has once again done: Taken apart a family or two (along with a storytelling trope or two) and then put the pieces back together better than he found them.