Film and Score Review: Moonrise Kingdom

The Movie:

I’m not the first person to say this, but Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom might be the most Wes Andersoney Wes Anderson movie that Wes Anderson’s Wes Andersoned yet.  Wes Anderson.  It’s hard to imagine a fan  of the director not adoring it, just as it’s hard to imagine a non-fan being won over (in other words, I can’t imagine that anybody who hated Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums is going to see this film and say, “This is great!  You know, I think my problem with Anderson’s previous movies is that they just weren’t precious enough!”).  All of Anderson’s hallmarks are present: intricately realized storybook settings, miniature worlds that seem like life-sized dollhouses, deadpan dialogue that mixes irony with melancholy, disappointing parent figures, and children who are as gifted as they are troubled.  If you found these elements charming and strangely moving in the past, you’re unlikely to feel differently with this film.

That said, Moonrise Kingdom differs from Anderson’s earlier films in at least one significant way – it places the story firmly in the hands of the children, rather than the adults.  With the possible exception of Rushmore, most of Anderson’s films are primarily about adult disappointment.  Films like Tenenbaums, Life Aquatic, and Fantastic Mr. Fox all have a storybook aesthetic, but that aesthetic ultimately works as a sad counterpoint to the arrested development and wasted potential of the films’ adult characters.  Moonrise Kingdom‘s intricate fantasy worlds, conversely, are a pure extension of the film’s child heroes’ imaginations.  The story itself is simple: two pre-adolescent misfits – geeky orphan Sam Shakusky and sheltered bookworm Suzy Bishop  – fall in love and decide to run away together.   Armed with Sam’s preposterously meticulous wilderness skills and Suzy’s collection of records and young adult novellas, the two set off into the pristine forests of New Penzance, Anderson’s fictional New England island.  As adult authority figures search the island for the young runaways, Sam and Suzy set about turning the island setting into their own private universe.  Everything element of the film is devoted towards realizing that universe.  Moonrise Kingdom‘s world follows the logic of a child’s daydream – it exists in a world  where 12-year olds earnestly speak like characters in a 1940s melodrama, record players can get jerked across rocky terrain and still play perfectly when it’s time for a slow dance, and lighting can strike a child and leave him with no other injury than the ash that appears on Yosemite Sam’s face after an explosion.  It’s the same signature whimsy that we always find in Anderson’s films, but it’s unsoured by adult disappointment.  The film certainly contains plenty of sad, disillusioned adult characters, but the film doesn’t belong to them or their half-hearted attempts at redemption.  The grown-ups either take the children’s lead or they fade in the background – Sam and Suzy own the movie, and they dictate its terms.  It’s perhaps for this reason that while the film has its melancholy undercurrent – Sam and Suzy are drawn to each other in part because they’ve both had such lonely unhappy childhoods – the overall tone is optimistic.

The Score:

An enormous part of the film’s impact of course comes from the film’s soundtrack.  Music plays a remarkably foregrounded role in Moonrise Kingdom, even by Anderson’s standards.  Like Tarantino, Anderson is famous for his jukebox scores, assembled from the obscure corners of his record collection.  His soundtracks are typically unified only by their eclectic nature –  you’re just as likely to hear songs from forgotten ’60s French New Wave films as you are famous hits by Bowie, and even the most popular songs tend to come in the form of obscure covers (i.e., the harpsichord arrangement of “Hey Jude” in Tenenbaums).  Yet the song choices never feel arbitrary – they emerge directly from his characters.  Anderson films tend to render the distinction between diegetic and non-diegetic music moot, because characters in his films constantly provide their own soundtracks.  We rarely hear music that the characters don’t hear as well, because Anderson’s characters go to great extremes to make sure that they can always listen to the soundtrack (i.e., Jason Schwartzman brining portable iPod speakers into the Indian desert in The Darjeeling Limited).  In Anderson’s films, part of expressing an identity comes through providing one’s own soundtrack, and his characters often communicate more about themselves through their song choices than they do through dialogue.

This is true of Moonrise Kingdom as well, though Anderson introduces a remarkable change of pace with his music selections.  Apart from the occasional period-establishing Hank Williams song or French doo-wop ballad, the bulk of the soundtrack consists of grandiose orchestral selections by mid-twentieth century English composer, Benjamin Britten.  It’s about as sharp a left turn from Portuguese Bowie covers as Anderson could have taken.  It’s a refreshing change of pace, as there’s nothing particularly hip, flashy, or even retro-chic about the composer’s music.  While enormously respected in the pantheon of 20th century composers, Britten’s qualities are generally too subtle to find much life outside of the concert hall world.  Influenced in equal measure by English composers from centuries past and his contemporaries in Russia and America, Britten’s music tends to walk a delicate balance between English tradition and contemporary modernism.  It’s perhaps for this reason that we rarely hear Britten’s music quoted or referenced in film, mainstream Hollywood or otherwise.  When filmmakers want beautiful British pastoral music, they tend to turn to Britten’s more immediately accessible contemporary, Vaughan-Williams.  When they want something more violent and menacing, the tend to turn to more overtly dissonant modernists like Shostakovich and Stravinsky.  Britten tends to sit in the middle of the two extremes, and his in-betweenness rarely suits filmmakers who need quick extremes.

It’s that in-betweenness, however, that seems to speak so much to the young characters in Moonrise Kingdom.  In what might be the film’s best running gag, nearly every child in the film seems to vehemently love Britten’s music.  They listen to his music constantly, and it never comes across as classical music imposed on them by their parents; the kids seem to have taken ownership of Britten’s oeuvre for themselves.  And they often go to extreme lengths to continue listening to the music: Suzy caries her brother’s record player across the island’s terrain largely so she can keep listening to Benjamin Britten, and her brothers are outraged when they discover that their record player – their sole apparatus for listening to Benjamin Britten – has been taken from them.  While the notion of 12-year old children obsessed with a concert hall composer is funny, it’s also strangely perfect for the characters.  Just as Sam and Suzy struggle to balance their sad family lives with their attempts at creating something beautiful for themselves, Britten’s music frequently struggles to  find melodic beauty from a backdrop of tumultuous dissonance.  This quality is most prominent in the composer’s “A Young Person’s Guide to Orchestra,” which Anderson uses as the film’s musical centerpiece.  Designed as a primer to teach children about orchestral music, Britten’s piece breaks a fully orchestrated melody down to its individual instrumental lines.  Britten’s purpose is ostensibly to illustrate the way that the various pieces of orchestral music come together to form a whole.  But while the piece seems designed to make orchestral music more accessible to young people, Britten does not soften any of the darker edges that come with his concert pieces.  The piece is based on a somber minor-key melody from 17th century composer Henry Purcell, and Britten’s massive orchestral variations are frequently ominous and tumultuous.  The music holds beauty as well, but it’s a dark beauty that never simplifies unpleasant emotions for the sake of sentimentality.  This music, which is supposed to make the adult world of orchestral music simpler for children, ends up exposing children to heavy adult emotions that conflate overpowering bleakness with beauty.  For Sam and Suzy, that music is a fitting illustration of their own relationship with the world around them.  Their outlook seems simple and naïve, yet their innocence does nothing to weaken their capacity for depression or euphoria.

Augmenting Britten’s music is Alexandre Desplat’s original score.  Desplat’s music occupies a fairly limited running time in the film, but it makes a strong impact.  I don’t believe he wrote more than 15 minutes of material, but that’s a lot when you consider that those 15 minutes consist of nothing but variations on two chords.  The music represents minimalistic layering at its most extreme – Desplat establishes those chords as a foundation, and then uses them to build solo lines for seemingly every major instrument in the Western musical lexicon music (from strings, brass, woodwinds, and percussion, to ukulele, banjo, and B3 organ).  While the music initially seems much smaller and quainter than Britten’s imposing orchestral forces, Desplat’s score gradually reaches epic proportions of its own.  By the time we get to the last act, Desplat is bringing male singers and tubular bells into the mix, signaling the apocalyptic urgency of the storm that bears down on the island during the climax.   It’s extremely effective film scoring, and it serves as a fitting reflection of the world that Sam and Suzy build in Moonrise Kingdom – built from simple whimsical pieces, but fully capable of snowballing to enormous and menacing proportions nevertheless.  The score’s biggest treat comes at the end credits, however, where the film turns the score into Desplat’s own “Young person’s Guide to the Orchestra.”  In hommage to the child narrators in Leonard Bernstein’s recording of Britten’s “Guide,” Anderson has a series of young child narrators identify each instrument that appears in Desplat’s suite.  I don’t think a director has ever treated his composer’s music more generously, and the effect is both charming and amusingly redundant (“16 Baritone-Bass singers,” a child announces at one point, as though this needed clarification).  Like Britten’s piece, the end credit suite manages to break the music down into its core components without reducing its affective impact.  It brings things full circle in a way that, like the film itself, is simultaneously charming, funny, and affecting.

Final Thoughts:

Moonrise Kingdom is probably Anderson’s best film since The Royal Tenenbaums, and its youthful exuberance often acts as a counterbalance to that earlier film’s series of adult disappointments.  And Anderson, Desplat, and their collaborators have built a score for the film that is witty, powerful, moving, and innovative – all qualities that have grown increasingly rare in today’s filmmaking climate.  It’s a rare soundtrack that actively encourages the audience to notice its presence and observe the way that the music interacts with the narrative.  That the music manages to do so without taking us out of the story or hindering its emotional impact on the characters is extremely impressive.  Anderson detractors are unlikely to find anything new to sway them, but the film comes highly recommended to everybody else.  If nothing else, the film seems poised to achieve something that previously seemed completely impossible: inspiring a new generation of hipsters to start listening to Benjamin Britten.

Film Rating:  * * * * 1/2 out of  * * * * *

Score Rating:  * * * * 1/2 out of * * * * *

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6 thoughts on “Film and Score Review: Moonrise Kingdom

  1. Ann says:

    The music indeed was wonderful. Bits of Schubert (“An die Musik”) and Mozart added commentary to the film. While Britten’s Young Person’s Guide…. played an important part in the film, his Noye’s Fludde (sp?) predominated, both in the story line and in the background music–appropriate, considering the story line.

  2. Ana says:

    I kinda liked the Tenenbaums, but it didn’t get me on the Wes Anderson train. Then I watched Rushmore and intensely disliked it.

    “I can’t imagine that anybody who hated Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums is going to see this film and say, ”This is great! You know, I think my problem with Anderson’s previous movies is that they just weren’t precious enough!””

    For old times/Tenenbaums sake, I decided to give this one a chance and boy, did it pay off.

    This is a wonderful film, in no small part thanks to its score.

    Your review is spot on with each sentence.

  3. Douglas Brown says:

    I enjoyed this review of the music of “Moonrise Kingdom.” I would like to note that the comment concerning “Sam’s preposterously meticulous wilderness skills” is obviously from someone who has no exposure to such practices. The skills that Sam demonstrated are in fact still passed on and evaluated in environs in which they are considered important. There are many places in the US and Canada where such skills are far more commonplace and essential than that of writing a coherent essay.

  4. […] film I’ve already reviewed, and I don’t have a lot to add other than to reiterate how moving it to see Anderson take the […]

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