It would be all too easy to use the word ‘adult’ to describe the darker themes of this ostensibly child-centered movie. The British Board of Film Classification would no doubt use such a term to justify their decision to rate it 12A. But even though it must submit to the rating system, ‘Moonrise Kingdom’ questions the reasoning that makes us deem certain ideas and states of mind ‘adult’ and others ‘childish’. By granting its young protagonists more than what most adults would consider to be an acceptable amount of knowledge and intelligence, ‘Moonrise Kingdom’ confronts us with a vision of childhood that is sharply different from its portrayal in most family-oriented comedy adventures—and disconcertingly similar to the real thing.
But this is not so much a rebellion against the conventions of children’s fiction as an attempt to take the genre back to its roots, back to a time before the divide between the worlds of adult and children’s literature had become entrenched. Everything about ‘Moonrise Kingdom’ proclaims its antique status, from its sepia tones and curling fonts, to its cartoonish visual effects and strict attention to period detail. It opens with a shot of Susie’s neat, boxlike house merging with a painting on the wall; from that point onwards the movie has the feeling of an illustration, a half-faded picture from the pages of an old fashioned, musty library book. The world in the picture is old enough to verge upon unreality, a world of obedient children in knee high socks and formal dresses, a world of record players and telephone operators; and yet, despite its apparent comfort and stability, not the sort of world one would want to escape to, but from. Susie’s orderly, perfectly segmented home might resemble a dollhouse, but she is certainly no doll, no more than her daily unhappiness and boredom is a meaningless game. For ‘Moonrise Kingdom’ is like the kind of old library book that has slipped past modern systems of classification, evaded all those vigilant eyes that would reserve darkness for adult literature. Like the classic children’s stories passed down from generation to generation—the novels of Roald Dahl, Edith Nesbit, Joan Aiken, and Enid Blyton—‘Moonrise Kingdom’ is willing to taint the enclosed microcosm of childhood with hatred, suffering, and cruelty.
As for the two runaways, Sam is a solemn orphan who has been officially labeled ‘emotionally disturbed’, and Susie a neurotic, friendless girl who easily fits the description, in the words of a child-rearing manual purchased by her desperate parents, of a ‘a very, very troubled child’. But despite or perhaps because of the oddness of these particular children, their stories tap into longings and fears that could be experienced by any child. On one hand, every child’s need for understanding, need to belong, need to feel in control of his or her destiny, is fulfilled by the magical, sheltered world that Sam and Susie create together. On the other, every child’s fear of being unloved, of losing control, of being hurt and hunted, lost and helpless, is embodied by Sam’s loveless foster guardians, by Susie’s warring mother and father—most spectacularly of all perhaps, by Tilda Swinton, as the immaculately, hygienically inhumane social services officer, sent to bring Sam down to an orphanage. In her own way, she is as powerful a symbol of a child’s helplessness in the hands of social and governmental institutions as the Trunchbull from ‘Matilda’; a character that we are not only allowed, but practically encouraged, to hate.
The seriousness of this hatred, whether it is expressed physically or emotionally, certainly has the potential to take the viewer by surprise. Susie’s announcement to her mother that she hated her, not to mention the shot of Susie’s bloody scissors shortly after a skirmish with the scouts, both deliver a sudden, potent shock; the shock of remembering that people can actually get hurt, even in the world of a storybook adventure. But in its final scenes ‘Moonrise Kingdom’ does exchange the believable for the appealing, painful reality for comfortable fantasy; such a shift in tone may have been necessary for an outwardly happy ending, but it still leaves an audience dissatisfied. Then again, one would think that the audience would be used to unbelievable happy endings from its many years watching movies intended for adults; fantasy is certainly not limited to children alone.