Uncanny Kingdom

Our film scholars and Wes Anderson watchers, along with movie critic Michelle Orange, evaluate the filmmaker’s latest release, Moonrise Kingdom, where people get struck by lightning as a matter of course.

Credit: Focus Features

When the movie houses were playing Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited, we asked film scholar Mike Baker and TMN contributor Pasha Malla to weigh in on its merits.

Now that another Anderson movie is in theaters, about scouts, summer camp, and kids falling in love, we sought them out again and added film critic Michelle Orange to the conversation.

Mike Baker is a postdoctoral fellow in the Centre for Cinema Studies at the University of British Columbia. His daughter is cuter than your daughter. Pasha Malla is a film school dropout who has worked as a camp counselor, elementary school teacher, and group home coordinator. His first novel, People Park, has just been published. Michelle Orange is the author of the forthcoming essay collection This Is Running for Your Life. She contributes film reviews to the Village Voice and is a staff critic at


Pasha Malla: The Darjeeling Limited aside, I’m a huge fan of Wes Anderson’s movies, Rushmore and Fantastic Mr. Fox especially. So I was excited for this. I watched the trailer a good half-dozen times and, encouraged by all the favorable reviews, raced alone to the first screening on opening day.

Michelle Orange: I did opening day too, a little unexpectedly. I avoided reviews. After feeling apprehensive and maybe even disheartened by the trailer, I was worried about being disappointed, or feeling disappointed on Anderson’s behalf, or something. I seem to be unusually invested in his success.

Mike Baker: Like Michelle, I find myself strangely invested in what Anderson does. I realize we aren’t dealing with Béla Tarr here, but I am still trying to figure out what I thought. Love him or hate him, Anderson is a visionary who makes films with a purpose that is often enchanting. He’s a stylist, through and through, and the worlds he presents on screen are generally things of wonder.

PM: I was so disappointed! There were definitely parts I loved, but overall it felt flat. I didn’t buy the kids and their dynamic, and while I’ve never cared for that boring criticism of Anderson’s films being too composed, this world felt like it was constraining the characters. Despite the storm, nothing ever felt dangerous; everything was so safely contained.

MO: Contrary to you two, after carefully managing my expectations I was thoroughly taken by the movie. I worried that I might not have that much to say here, because I walked out feeling pretty floaty. I just liked it, maybe loved it. It got to me—I’m surprised how much.

PM: There was one floaty bit for me: when Sam tells Suzy, “I love you, but you don’t know what you’re talking about.” I loved that so much. I wanted more of that sort of thing.

This isn’t exactly revelatory, or necessarily a problem, but Wes Anderson’s movies seem, above all else, self-portraits of Wes Anderson.

MO: I loved that line, too. I was wondering how Anderson was going to get them out of that moment, and the delivery was perfect.

MB: Anderson is clearly in his comfort zone when dealing with children or childlike adults, and yet key sequences featuring the child leads in Moonrise Kingdom—who performed admirably, for the most part—seem malformed in relationship to the film as a whole. The beach sequence was pitch-perfect and demonstrated what a gift Anderson and his collaborators have for getting the very best line-reading out of actors when something subtle is being played for laughs. (Bob Balaban was a revelation.) The climactic finale, on the other hand, not only struggled under its own weight but also featured some of the weakest moments of performance in the film, effectively disarming its impact.

MO: It’s interesting when a director often accused of coolness and calculation works on you at that gut level. I was lukewarm on The Royal Tenenbaums when I first saw it. I remember worrying that what felt fresh and charming about Rushmore could be stressed to the point of fracture. But when I re-watched it years later (and several times since then) it had a completely different effect on me. Of course that’s generally true—what you bring to a film and your response to it is bound by time and experience; it’s never the same movie twice—but I think it may be even more true with Anderson’s films. It may also be true that requiring a specific quality of receptivity of your viewer is the mark of any distinctive director.

PM: Sure, but I wonder about that line between receptivity and expectation. I was unreservedly looking forward to Moonrise Kingdom; in retrospect, maybe my expectations were too high, or I went into it with a predetermined idea of what I wanted, which is unfair. Anderson is one of those artists whose work, at its best, makes me think I know him, and I like what I think I know. My favorites among his movies articulate something essential about myself, so much so that I also interpret them (ridiculously, sure) as expressions of his affection for me. And I wonder if that illusion of kinship sets up an unfair dynamic between artist and fan.

MO: I can’t argue with you about your response, which goes beyond an “it’s all subjective anyway” exit strategy and into the realm of feeling very personally disappointed by someone you have come to feel knows and cares for you in a very particular way. (I have the opposite feeling with terrible movies, that their maker is putting over how little they think of me.) That’s part of a response that rarely gets talked about in any satisfying way. Perhaps in part because, for instance, I am well aware that you are not heartless, nor relentlessly cynical, but you still didn’t connect to the movie, and for whatever reason, on that day at that moment, I did. It gets into territory beyond the movie that’s not easy to articulate. But so interesting. What do you guys think? Let’s do an inventory.

PM: This isn’t exactly revelatory, or necessarily a problem, but Wes Anderson’s movies seem, above all else, self-portraits of Wes Anderson. But in Moonrise Kingdom, for me that self-portraiture overwhelms the human experiences that should be at the heart of the film.

MO: Pasha, I’m least troubled by your feeling that the relationship between the kids didn’t wash, but most interested in the terms of that claim: You didn’t “buy” it, it wasn’t emotionally truthful, it missed how falling in love for the first time really feels. I can’t tell if you mean the portrayal didn’t feel realistic enough or the sentiments behind it were false or rendered falsely. But I do disagree with the idea that the experience of a first love somehow stands outside of the heightened, 30-degrees-off-center, generally 1965-ish world Anderson inhabits so obstinately. I actually doubt there is any more common human experience more tinged by fantasy—before it happens, after it happens, while it’s happening. The movies themselves have been a boon to those fantasies, coloring and architecting the way we experience and remember and retell big narrative moments in our own lives.

PM: No, no, I completely feel that fantasy is the best way to treat children’s experience of pretty much anything. And I’d never need any story to be more “realistic.” I wanted to feel the kids’ love for each other—the helpless, sickening way I loved Becky Brisco in fourth grade—and I didn’t. I’m not sure how we can argue something so subjective. Considering what you and 98 percent of “top critics” are saying, I wonder if this isn’t my failing more than Wes Anderson’s.

My movie-neighbor was a 15-year-old girl. This teenager was entirely swept away. It made me realize there is an investment in Anderson’s worlds by people outside the college-age students and middle-aged hipster demographic who have been following him for over a decade.

MO: Maybe you were looking for something other than what Anderson does, and that that something has more to do with a common “reality.” Where I think this movie is, in several ways, the height and perfection of what he does, and that fantasy is as apt a way to get at the truth of human experience as any other.

MB: I think it’s all central to Anderson’s identity as an artist. His individual works are really inseparable from his filmography as a whole, including things like credit card commercials. Part of Fantastic Mr. Fox’s brilliance is the way it perfectly distils and crystallizes all of the best bits of the previous films: Its greatness comes from the way it reflects his earlier work. I really thought Moonrise Kingdom would find Anderson effortlessly transposing the ingredients of FMF success back to live-action, but it just didn’t work out that way.

PM: Exactly. The fantasy and the emotional truths never meshed. Sam getting hit by lightning—and surviving, unfazed—is clearly coded in the cartoonish, storybook quality of the movie, but it felt like a stunt, and lacked emotional or even narrative weight. Remember that scene near the end of Rushmore, when Max rigs a tree to fall on Blume? That was a fantastic (in both senses) visual gag and it hit a poignant emotional note.

MO: I guess I don’t see the kind of fantasy that takes shape in Moonrise Kingdom as that different from those you describe—in this case it’s a fantasy of the past and of a certain kind of alienated childhood (partly the orphaned kind Suzy romanticizes) resolved by love. Where things seem more “innocent,” everyone has more outdoor skills, and people get struck by lightning as a matter of course.

MO: I read an interview in which Anderson said he chose to set it in 1965 because it seems like a more innocent time. What do we think of that? Cop out? Generational handicap?

PM: I think one of the major problems in this movie is that it confuses naiveté for innocence. To me, naiveté is great territory for an ironist like Anderson to tell jokes, because it invests in something fanciful or untrue, while innocence is so blank it doesn’t know what to believe. The movie didn’t capture that essential longing and melancholy—what Graham Greene, in his story “The Innocent,” calls “the terrible inevitability of separation”—particular to children’s love. The movie has a tonal, cosmetic melancholy, but, other than the moment when Bill Murray’s character fails to chop down a tree, it doesn’t often get at an emotional melancholy, too.

MO: That’s why you like Sam’s response to Suzy’s naiveté about orphans. Isn’t it funny that all she hears is “I love you”? That seems more innocent. But I am confused about what you’re saying—that Anderson was concerned less with representing the melancholy of first, childish love than the naiveté? Did you find the treatment ironic? How about Margot and Richie Tenenbaum? I imagine them as each other’s first love (there are a bunch of rhymes between that twosome and this one, from the eyeliner to the dress to all that tent action), and that quintessential moment of Margot getting off the bus to “These Days” taps into the loss of the same innocent, impossible longing Greene describes. That moment is very much a fantasy, to return to your point about an over-reliance on fantasy or the fantastical crowding out the human factor—it feels like a remembered fantasy even as it’s happening—and yet the gauzy quality is pierced by the heartbreaking expressions on the faces of two characters who are otherwise designed and presented as avatars. For me that has always been the surprising clinch of Anderson’s signature moves, or sensibility: the dichotomy of a highly constructed world populated by moments of uncanny human intimacy.

MB: On the romance side of things, I’m a bit self-conscious admitting this, but I got quite wrapped up in Suzy’s character, particularly her portrayal in relationship to other boys (not just Sam) and her mother. I kept thinking to myself, “I’m going to have one of those in 10 more years.” Sitting in a packed theater on a Saturday night at the Regal on Union Square, my movie-neighbor was a 15-year-old girl and her middle-aged mother. Whenever Kara Hayward appeared on screen, this young girl was enraptured and spoke excitedly to her mother—at one point, I’m pretty sure I heard her claim she had read one of the fictitious children’s books carried by Suzy on her adventure. This teenager was entirely swept away. It made me realize there is an investment in Anderson’s worlds by people outside the college-age students and middle-aged hipster demographic who have been following him for over a decade. What does Moonrise Kingdom look like to those who think life began with Fantastic Mr. Fox?

MB: It’s amazing how far into the conversation we, and others, have gotten without acknowledging Anderson’s collaborators. Yes, the vision he offers us is uniquely his own, but its execution requires the talents of cast members like Murray and Jason Schwartzman, and crew members like Robert Yeoman, Randall Poster, and more recently, Alexandre Desplat, Roman Coppola, and Andrew Weisblum. It can’t be overstated how important it is for a director to not only trust his collaborators to at once follow instructions very precisely, but feel encouraged to experiment, and explore opportunities that will manifest themselves as being one with the director’s own personal choices. So if we’re knocking Wes Anderson, there are other people in the room. And if we’re praising Wes Anderson, we need to make sure there’s enough to go around. Yeoman, in particular, doesn’t receive enough praise for his masterful cinematography in Anderson’s films.

There’s a nostalgia-like thing now operative within the Wes Anderson universe itself—we long for certain character-types, images, jokes, and emotional cues from the earlier works, and when we get them, like those two great lines spoken by the kids that you both identified, or that superb moment with the heartbroken and drunk Mr. Bishop explaining he’s off to find a tree to chop down, the butterflies I feel in my stomach remind me of everything I love in cinema. And with that in mind, I find all of Anderson’s films are aging remarkably well. Even The Darjeeling Limited, which Pasha and I publicly thrashed, has grown on me upon subsequent viewings away from the glare of its highly anticipated release and with my initially negative feelings blunted with the passing of time.

This notion of Anderson as curator is a popular approach to his work within the academy—always on the schedule at film studies conferences but, thankfully, very little of it has thus far made it into print.

PM: Sometimes Anderson seems to treat characters as vehicles for his fetishes and curiosities, and rather than a movie about even his own childhood experience of love, we get a movie that is essentially an adult’s imaginative rendering of his love affair with the stuff he likes.

MO: Anderson has described over and over again the way that he often begins with a look or an item or a song, and then seeks to create a world around the feeling that look, item, or song evokes in him. He doesn’t start with a storyline or a personality arc or an inner life, so his characters are at risk of feeling like avatars of his imagination and the story more like a function of aesthetic necessity.

At his best, though—and I do think Moonrise Kingdom is one of his best—he transcends fetishism. He gives us a different way of arriving at the feelings we all want to feel at the movies. Among other things I saw Moonrise Kingdom as a successful example of his ongoing exploration of the way the physical world—particularly our domiciles, our objects, and our relationship with art and its delivery systems—forms a landscape in our memories against which emotions are painted, and the extent to which we experience (see? retain?) memory as material. (I am now remembering Pasha chiding Terrence Malick for failing to evoke the most powerful sense vis-a-vis memory: smell.)

MB: This notion of Anderson as curator is a popular approach to his work within the academy—always on the schedule at film studies conferences but, thankfully, very little of it has thus far made it into print. I think much of it misses the writerly aspect of Anderson’s talent—Michelle, your observations subtly draw out this aspect of things rather nicely. Yes, he comes upon tokens like the fictitious children’s books favored by Suzy, Alistair Hennessey’s espresso machine in The Life Aquatic, or—perhaps best of all—the Perfect Attendance and Punctuality Awards offered by Max to Blume in Rushmore. But he still needs to find a way to write them into the narrative in such a way that they have value in terms of the plot or characterization, and it’s remarkable how often he pulls this off with sophistication. I feel like I need to see Moonrise Kingdom again to get a better handle on how this particular aspect of his work operates in the new film, but I can already say I have a much more positive feeling about Moonrise Kingdom and I’m actually excited to go see it again.

PM: The fishhook/beetle earrings were one objective correlative that really worked, and even felt magical. A funny visual, but also emotionally resonant. On a slightly unrelated note, I just realized that I seem to enjoy Wes Anderson’s movies at home, on my little TV, more than screenings at a multiplex. I wonder if there’s an intimacy about his films that lends itself more to home viewing?

MO: What about the typically poignant ending, where a small moment of triumph is framed by a larger sense of future impossibilities?

PM: I just figured “all’s well that ends well,” at least for Sam and Suzy. Unless you mean that what we’ve learned of adult relationships in the film suggests that once they’re adults they’ll be miserable. Even then, I thought we’re being led to believe that S&S have somehow transcended all that.

MO: Something about Sam in Bruce Willis’s uniform, and specifically the idea of him assuming the role of an heir, felt very sad to me. I saw him as already resigned to the fringe, scrambling out of Suzy’s window the way Willis skulked around on the sidelines of a more acceptable (if equally disappointing) life. It hit that balance of beatific and bummer.

MB: I think we’re invited to project forward into Sam and Suzy’s future and see them together, somehow, but I don’t feel hopeful about things. Look at the track record: the Blumes, the Tenenbaums, the Zissous. Adult romances are ruinous in the Wes Anderson universe, assuming they don’t end with a widowed spouse. Only the Foxes last, and their love must first overcome the selfish behavior of Mr. Fox and a series of mortal threats. (Add “If what I think is happening is happening, it better not be” to our tally of all-time great Wes Anderson line-readings.) And this leads me back to the idea of innocence in Anderson’s work as a whole and Moonrise Kingdom in particular: I’m not convinced he’s as invested in it as it would seem, at least not in a traditional sense of things. Children in his films are forced to behave like adults, their childhoods replaced by this ambiguous space identified by child-aged accoutrements and adventures but with the responsibilities and stakes beyond their years. Their lives are idealized to a point, but this depiction—whether it’s 1965 or a contemporary moment—is undermined by dead parents (at least five by my count), dead pets (two dogs, for a start), and more innocuous things like adolescent boys witnessing adultery and throwing around “handjob” like it’s just another word. With all of that in mind, I find myself very invested in the adult relationships of Moonrise Kingdom, since I assumed they were speaking directly to the future faced by Sam and Suzy.

PM: The more we talk about this movie, the more I feel like I need to see it again!

MO: Doooo it. 

Mike Baker is a postdoctoral fellow in the Centre for Cinema Studies at the University of British Columbia. His daughter is cuter than your daughter. Pasha Malla is a film school dropout who has worked as a camp counselor, elementary school teacher, and group home coordinator. His first novel, People Park, has just been published. More by Mike Baker & Pasha Malla