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Bill Murray and Bruce Willis Shine in 'Moonrise Kingdom'

Gentle story about young love is the real star

Director: Wes Anderson
Rating PG-13. Running Time: 94 minutes
Stars: Bill Murray, Bruce Willis, Frances McDormand, Ed Norton, Tilda Swinton

It is no insult to tag Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom as "charming" or "enchanting." Those qualities are sadly missing in this vertigo-inducing era of big screen alien invasions and superhero exploits, but they are here, three times filled and overflowing, in the newest film from Anderson.

See also: Kids steal the show in Super 8.

Bill Murray as Mr. Bishop, Frances McDormand as Mrs. Bishop, Edward Norton as Scout Master Ward, and Bruce Willis as Captain Sharp in Wes Anderson's MOONRISE KINGDOM

Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Edward Norton and Bruce Willis star in Wes Anderson's "Moonrise Kingdom." — Courtesy Focus Features

As he did in his instant classics Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums and Darjeeling Limited, Anderson infuses Moonrise Kingdom with the qualities of a waking dream: characters speak in non sequiturs that somehow espouse enormous truths, minuscule events play out as scenes from epic mythology, and exquisitely crafted sets seem to be cut from colored paper with the tiniest of tiny sharp scissors.

The story could hardly be simpler: A pair of preteen kids (Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward) recognize in each other their soul mates and run away together — she from her family home and he from a scout camp — and set up house in a tent on a rocky New England island beach. Their disappearance sets off a mad search involving just about everyone who lives on the island, including the girl's parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), the island police captain (Bruce Willis) and the scoutmaster (Edward Norton), along with his entire troop of variously misfit scouts.

The search parties — with their calculated splits, confluences and conflicts (plus, in the case of the girl's mom and the police captain, a secret romance) — are vintage Anderson. Chaos reigns, but nobody seems overly worried. Through deadpan reasoning and earnest discourse, plans are hatched and disasters are dealt with. Even when the search turns semi-tragic, the players keep a stiff upper lip, soldier on and face the next challenge with a mix of baseless optimism and unwarranted dread.

Most of the players are Anderson movie alumni — Willis and Norton are the newcomers — and they are all perfectly modulated in the director's trademark manner. The film's one wild card is the great Tilda Swinton, as a social services representative who appears to be named Social Services. From long experience we know that Swinton, one of cinema's most unpredictable actresses, is at any moment likely to snap Anderson's leash and bolt off in some unexpected direction. Her mere presence provides a sense of danger to Anderson's carefully measured off-kilter balance. She is always invaluable, and here even more so.

It is in his story of the two young runaways that Anderson seems to be blazing new territory. The boy and girl speak in the same economical manner that the film's adults do, but their exchanges are fraught with barely concealed preadolescent nervous energy. At times, their conversations are small wonders of economical wit and innocent misdirection.

"Was he a good dog?" she asks of a departed pooch.

"Who's to say?" he responds.

There is a sweetness in the kids' determination to barge prematurely into an adult world, and Anderson — aided by truly magical performances by his child stars — manages to avoid the creepy traps into which virtually any other filmmaker would have fallen headlong.

It seems outrageous to say a filmmaker as accomplished as Anderson — whose fan-base dedication borders on hero worship — has made a breakthrough film. But there's something about Moonrise Kingdom that transcends his earlier work. After years of telling stories about grownups who act like children, perhaps the realm of childhood is where he belonged all the time.

You may also like: 2012 — Summer of the grownup blockbusters.

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