There are two kinds of Wes Anderson movies: The ones you love and the ones you don’t. After seven feature films (including The Royal Tenenbaums, Rushmore and The Fantastic Mr. Fox), the mere mention of his name splits movie buffs into two camps: people who savor his style — a whimsical, storybook surface harboring deep wells of emotion — and people who find him arch and artificial.
Moonrise Kingdom, which opens Friday, may be the most Andersonesque picture of his career, but it is also the most accessible. The cast is large and filled with stars (Bruce Willis, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Edward Norton, Harvey Keitel). The setting is fictitious — the adventurous-sounding New Penzance Island — but grounded enough in reality that we always have our bearings. The story — 12-year-olds Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward) fall in love and run away from home — is slight on plot but heavy on incident, humor and heart.
And the central themes — the way we remember childhood, the logic kids use to understand the world, the sweet, dolorous and exhilarating rush of first love — are dealt with lightly and gently, never spelled out or force-fed.
Anderson’s refusal to hold moviegoers’ hands, to tell them where to look or what to feel, is part of what makes his movies so invigorating. You take away from Moonrise Kingdom whatever you want to, but no two people will respond to the film the same way. The open nature of his work, combined with the specificity of his craft — every frame is precisely composed and gorgeous — is part of what makes his pictures so divisive.
“The first thing I do when I finish a first draft of a script is I show it to a group of my friends and colleagues,” Anderson says. “They’ve been the same people since the beginning of my career. And what usually happens is that I’ll get completely different reactions.
“Sometimes I can really use the feedback, like when everyone points to the same thing and says it isn’t working. But generally, the opinions are all over the place. When you go to a movie, your opinion of it is based on the connection you make with the movie. When someone says ‘Oh, you just don’t get it,’ they’re the ones who don’t get it. Everyone’s reaction is right. And the subject matter of a movie is going to play a huge role in how you respond.”
Anderson is comfortable and eloquent talking about his films. He’s not reticent and mysterious, like David Lynch, and he’s happy to describe his creative process and style, which is often dismissed as overly fussy and precious, perhaps because the director labors over every detail.
“When I’m working on a movie, I’m not really thinking about what I’m doing,” he says. “I’m thinking about what we’re trying to make, but I don’t think about why I’m making certain choices.
“I’ve always wanted to be involved in the theater. I acted in plays when I was in elementary school. But I’ve never had anything to do with the theater as a grown-up. …
“What I’ve realized lately is that there’s a big part of my movies that is all about the theater, and that the audience is there to watch a piece of art that is being made for them. I think that’s why I’ve often put scenes of characters performing in plays into my movies. There’s definitely a theatrical quality to them.”