In 1965, on a New England island, 12-year-old scout Sam (Jared Gilman) and local girl Suzy (Kara Hayward) elope. He brings maps and his coonskin cap. She packs a suitcase full of books, a portable record player and a kitten. They pitch tents on a remote beach and dance to soulful French pop songs. Her bickering parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), his stuffy scoutmaster (Edward Norton) and the milquetoast local sheriff (Bruce Willis) launch a hunt. The other scouts join the search with Dionysian zeal, packing their hatchets and Bowie knives. Meanwhile the local cartographer (Bob Balaban) warns us the island is about to be battered by the mother of all storms.
Welcome to "Moonrise Kingdom," the latest unadulterated delight from Wes Anderson ("The Royal Tenenbaums," "Rushmore"). Every Anderson movie creates a playful, hermetic world where arch humor duels with romantic melancholy. The sets resemble dollhouse interiors, and the performances are big. His special gift isn't his persnickety art direction, nor his knack for enticing megastars into eccentric roles. It's his ability to create a comic gulf between how his characters see themselves and our view of them.
Briskly paced and jam-packed with visual gags, "Moonrise Kingdom" is a family-movie heartwarmer like no other. Watching it is like shuffling through a shoebox of fading snapshots and silly mementos. It's shot on 16-millimeter stock that gives the images a warm, buttery nostalgia perfectly in key with the film's anachronistic humor.
Anderson and his screenwriting collaborator, Roman Coppola, give us a world before helicopter parents, where adults nonchalantly allow kids to fiddle with kerosene and gunpowder unsupervised. There's a great scene where the sheriff has a heart-to-heart with Sam about the challenges of romance. He pours the boy a beer. The movie recaptures an innocent emotional landscape that has vanished forever.
Though he's often accused of hipster irony, there's not a cynical bone in Anderson's body. He thinks with his heart. Part of what's so touching about "Moonrise Kingdom" is its atmosphere of naive hopefulness. The film is about how kids -- and adults -- need to get out of themselves and connect.
There's the intoxicating puppy love of the youngest characters. Sam's an orphan. Suzy feels like one. On their isolated island, each is the only person who understands the other. Later we see a halfhearted dalliance between two adult characters, and the ash heap of regrets dividing Suzy's parents, who are both lawyers.
The climax, amid the big typhoon, has one inhibited character rising to the occasion, reaching out heroically to link up with others. The only antagonist is an officious social-services bureaucrat played by Tilda Swinton, who wants to pack Sam off to an orphanage. In the end, even her flinty heart softens. It's hard to imagine a viewer who won't feel the same.