If you were an overachieving high school nerd with a crush on an unattainable woman in the late 1990s—and they were all unattainable back then— it’s more than likely your cinematic hero was Wes Anderson. The Texas-born writer-director was a wünderkind making witty, assured movies about young characters who weren’t much younger than himself. His breakthrough film Rushmore (1998) was a treasure trove for aspiring hipsters, from its jangly ‘60s soundtrack to its proto-Family Guy cutaway gags. It also reintroduced Bill Murray to a generation of teenaged viewers who may have only dimly remembered him as one of the Ghostbusters.
The film had so many good points that Anderson’s neat-freak compositions struggled to contain them; the problems, meanwhile, lurked outside the frame.
Rushmore’s critical and commercial success spawned a merciless cycle of imitators trying to replicate its super-quirky charms. Making matters worse was that the main offender was Anderson himself. While 2001’s charming family saga The Royal Tenenbaums was Rushmore’s equal, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004) and The Darjeeling Limited (2007) may as well have been parodies of his style: nattily dressed ciphers moping about exquisitely art-directed vacuums. It was as if Anderson, who burst onto the scene at age 25, had finally caught up with the talent of those early features and followed it right into a rut.
But Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) was a turning point. Since Anderson’s impeccably crafted films already resembled (human) puppet shows, stop-motion animation was a logical next step. The question is whether this month’s Moonrise Kingdom will be the next step in a new winning streak or another in a series of holding patterns. Anderson isn’t exactly breaking new ground. He’s assembled an amazing cast—Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton—ironically to hunt a pair of young, unknown actors (Jared Gillman and Kara Hayward).
The story sounds like the ultimate Anderson plot: two 12-year-old puppy-lovers who run away from their coastal New England town. All of his films are in some way about the clash between the security of childhood and the responsibilities of the adult world. The paradox is that Anderson’s own filmmaking seems as resistant to growing up as his characters, which is both a source of his charm and one of his limitations.
Make no mistake: Anderson is too big a talent to be reduced to an I-Heart-the-’90s entry alongside other alt-geek icons like Weezer, but as he ages along with his fans, it might be time to abandon his private celluloid moonrise kingdom for the real world.