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Wes Anderson's Alternate Magic Kingdom

Moonrise Kingdom is a big box of whimsy

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Moonrise Kingdom, Wes Anderson's Whitman Sampler of a paradise found, is 2012's first bona fide Oscar contender as we approach the halfway mark in a pretty average year for films.

From its opening moment, Anderson frames his scenes in oh-so-precise crinkly wrappers, not unlike Mr. Whitman's box of delights--an oozy chocolate cream of a memory here, a chewy nougat of complexity there. Themes of innocence, bravery and stick-to-itiveness are considered, and, of course, tucked underneath, just like the sampler, is another layer of heart-felt morality. Flawed as his characters may be, Anderson always gives them just enough wiggle room to do the right thing before the credits roll.

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Anderson, a graceful filmmaker who introduced us to the bizarrely lovable Royal Tenenbaums and the off-kilter academy of Rushmore, has hit perfect stride with Moonrise Kingdom, the fictional name for a cove that is the backdrop to the quite-real infatuation of a twosome of 12-year-olds.

While the two puberty-bound pen pals ooze with attraction, we are assured that nothing naughty is going on. In fact, Anderson coaxes his characters to walk a delicate tightrope between sweetness and rapture, never falling into the canyon of cynicism where so many other movies lie.

A Wes Anderson film is nothing if not a collection of unforgettable characters, and they are in abundance here. While the ensemble is star-packed, young Jared Gilman as Sam and Kara Hayward as Suzy tower above the rest, even if they require a treehouse.

When, in pursuit of adventure and companionship, they go missing, a pursuit posse mobilizes, including a small-town sheriff (Bruce Willis), Sam's Scout master (Edward Norton), Suzy's parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) and a tightly wound Tilda Swinton, who identifies herself only as Social Services (to complicate matters, Sam is an orphan). Add Sam's Scout troop to the parade and you have a search party that scurries more than scours.

"Jiminy Cricket, he flew the coop," deadpans Norton as the Scout leader Ward. He and Willis are wonderful as the story's uniformed oddballs who are anything but uniform.

Anderson's craftsmanship behind the lens is a singular achievement. But his script, co-written by Roman Coppola (co-writer of The Darjeeling Limited), is delightfully snappy.

"Frances, where the hell are you?" shouts McDormand, who for some loony reason likes to employ a megaphone while talking.

"I'm up here," says Murray, his head popping out of an upstairs window.

"Does it concern you that your daughter has run away from home?" blasts McDormand.

(Pause.)

"That's a loaded question," he replies.

Anderson's characters live in that wonderful place between reality and Disneyland, where expert storytelling finds the magic in our earthbound lives. I can't remember whimsy feeling this good.

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