(This is second part of our two-part essay on Moonrise Kingdom. In this half, we focus on the visual design of Anderson’s film. For the first half of the article, please click here.)
Photographed in Super 16, Moonrise Kingdom achieves its creator Wes Anderson’s intended visual punch when it is projected in the traditional 35mm format. While this may seem a little too specific for the casual viewer and the mightily sharp images of the digital presentation is certainly acceptable, I would argue that the minor yet significant merit of analogue over digital is especially essential in the case of this film. Having seen both versions, the grainier quality of the film enhances the movie’s desired retro look and the colors stand out vividly with the warmth that digital projection has yet to replicate. The yellow hues of New England woodlands match seamlessly with the earthy tones of Sam’s Khaki Scout attire. Suzy’s indiscreetly applied green eye shadow and her pairing of a pink mini dress with knee-high white socks put her squarely into the awkward limbo of a preteen. Even for a minor character like Social Services (played by the Tati-esque Tilda Swinton), the dark royal blue of her cape and hat contrasts sharply with her short red hair. Combined with the costume’s distinct silhouette, her presence communicates an imposing figure immediately in her first scene. Anderson’s meticulous attention to details as such is part of what makes him a successful visual storyteller, who has provided more than enough reasons for viewers to seek out a good old 35mm projection for this film.
Movies are the fruits of collaborative effort and Anderson’s long-time associates like cinematographer Robert Yeoman deserve a lot of credit for the director’s signature style. With that said, the self-taught Texan has amassed a body of work that could be best explained by the auteur theory, which argues that the director is the singular creative force that determines the essence of the film. Scorsese, Tarantino, Von Trier and other auteurs all have their signature style but it is safe to say that very few contemporary filmmakers have a visual style that is as distinguishable as Anderson’s. Even the untrained eye would be able to pick an Anderson film from a lineup. The brilliance of its simplicity is a double-edged sword for his visual style. For as much as it has been lauded, it has also attracted its fair share of detractors. One of the most common digs on Anderson is that his movies are “style over substance”. I can understand that his aesthetics may not be everyone’s cup of tea but the accusation that a filmmaker’s work can suffer from being too concerned with style is absurd. As Jim Jarmusch asserted in an essay about Yasujiro Ozu for the Criterion Collection, “All filmmakers are, in the end, stylists, whether they know it or not—and those who don’t often create the most uninteresting of styles… style is inseparable to human expression.” It is through the mechanism of commercial filmmaking that Anderson’s brand of film grammar can be best demonstrated. Moonrise Kingdom stands as his boldest and purposeful effort since The Royal Tenenbaums.
Undaunted by the missteps of his more ambitious films—most notably The Life Aquatic with Steve Zizzou, Anderson continues to innovate within his otherwise proven recipe. Anderson has never pretended to produce realist cinema and he always enjoys setting his films in a fairytale-like reality. In the past he had Alec Baldwin narrate The Royal Tenenbaums like a novel and Fantastic Mr. Fox was his most literal attempt at adapting a fairytale. In Moonrise Kingdom, the storybook element is introduced early in the film with the appearance of a narrator (Bob Balaban) on screen to introduce the time period, geographic information and weather conditions of which the story will be set in. Anderson’s movies are obsessed with fleshing out every detail in its fictional world and the cinematography is designed to serve that purpose. In one of his favorite maneuvers since Rushmore, the camera pans from one end to the other as it captures an assortment of character interactions all in one shot. With a combination of regular and swish pans, Moonrise Kingdom smoothly established a clear picture of the interiors of Suzy’s house in the opening sequence. An almost-360-degree pan later in the film as Suzy (Kara Hayward) and Sam (Jared Gilman) reach the top of a hill provides a gorgeous panoramic view of their surroundings. As Suzy sits still while looking through her binoculars, Sam moves out of frame and then reappears at the other end (putting mustard on hot dogs) when the camera gradually pans from left to right. Sam’s change of positions gives the scene a sense of depth that the straightforward pans in Anderson’s previous movies did not. With the smallest budget since his first film Bottle Rocket, Anderson has grown to be more resourceful, such as utilizing miniature sets (something he learned from making Fantastic Mr. Fox), yet his vision for Moonrise Kingdom is as vigorously imaginative as anything he has ever made.