Wes Anderson's films are as formally distinctive as Peter Greenaway's, and sometimes as maddening. They are pictorial things, but less in the way of a film than, say, a graphic novel. Where Greenaway thinks like a painter, Anderson uses the camera like a cartoonist, each frame hyper-composed in colour and composition, an eccentric mini-work of art in itself.
What the frames don't have is much sense of physical or emotional movement from one to another. It's the same with the dialogue. People in Wes World don't overlap in their conversation – a character says something, then there's a pause, then another character replies. Again, it's like the thin white lines dividing one box from another in a comic strip. Some find the effect very charming.
His latest, Moonrise Kingdom, brings two sealed-off worlds into collision. It's a kind of romance, if you can imagine a romance between two lonely 12-year-olds from dysfunctional backgrounds. The year is 1965, the place an island called New Penzance off the East Coast of America. A gnome-like chorus (Bob Balaban) introduces us to the place, warning of a storm that will strike here "in three days' time", an odd note that's at once proleptic and retrospective: we're being told of something about to happen that's already happened. Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) lives with her family in a beach house where the furnishings are picturebook neat and everything else is in quiet disarray. Through her beloved binoculars, Suzy catches sight of her mother (Frances McDormand) cosying up to the local sheriff (Bruce Willis) while her father (Bill Murray) mopes about in self-pity and her brothers, raising the tone, listen to Benjamin Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra.
On the other side of the island, a boy named Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) hasn't shown up to breakfast at scout camp. Scoutmaster Ward (Edward Norton) goes to investigate his tent and finds it empty, with a hole carved into the side. "Jiminy Cricket, he flew the coop!" We cut to young Sam, pipe in mouth, Davy Crockett hat on head, stalking through the countryside.
With his large spectacles and intense air he's a close relative of Max from Anderson's much-loved Rushmore (1999), clever and somewhat unpopular with his peers. He's gone AWOL so as to elope with Suzy, neither of them much given to travelling light: he's got a BB gun, a huge rucksack, his paintbox and brushes, she's brought suitcase, satchel, cat (plus cat food), books and a record player. This last item might look impractical, but how else do you have your first kiss with a Françoise Hardy record to serenade it?
Meanwhile, a posse consisting of Scoutmaster, Sheriff and Sam's khaki-clad fellows is in pursuit of the runaways, with Suzy's parents tagging along: "Our daughter has been abducted by one of these beige lunatics," says a distraught Mr Bishop.
Truth is, the chase is less important to Anderson than the chance to go to town with his team, cinematographer Robert Yeoman, production designer Adam Stockhausen and costume designer Kasia Walicka Maimone. Ars est celare artem is a Latin motto – "the art is to hide the art" – which Anderson turns inside out: for him the art is to show off the art, all the time.
The eye is constantly invited to feast on his compositional finesse, the squared-off rooms with their immaculately arranged clutter, the artful tableaux, the visual rhymes and symmetries. Look at an early shot of Suzy, her red gingham dress duplicating the squares of the trellis seat she's resting on. Squares obsess this film-maker. I have never seen so much plaid in a single movie. Or take the long rectangular shot of Suzy and Sam jumping into a lake at opposite ends of the screen. Characters face one another like duellists, firing off one shot of dialogue, then waiting for the return.
This formalist approach would be fine, as I said, in a graphic novel, where the reader must supply the tones of voice and the levels of intensity. The effect is much diminished on screen, however, because Anderson's cool direction tends to flatten out the feeling. Bruce Willis, Edward Norton and Anderson regular Bill Murray are good as far as they go, which in moral terms isn't far at all.
Tilda Swinton as a social services witch is the one character around whom something milder than whimsy stirs: Sam, an orphan, has been rejected by his foster parents and thus could be fed into the maw of the juvenile detention system. Yet the drama feels so airless that the pathos of his situation never truly registers. That's not to blame the two young leads, who bring more to the story than was perhaps expected of them. Kara Hayward's dark-eyed moodiness is a nice counterpoint to Jared Gilman's blithe fugitive, who makes a startling confession to his beloved – "It's possible I may wet the bed later, I'm afraid" – and manages to survive with dignity intact.
Some have been calling Moonrise Kingdom a return to form, but his last few pictures surely haven't been so different for him to have anything to "return" to. Whether roaming the high seas (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou), crisscrossing India (The Darjeeling Limited) or burrowing into animation (Fantastic Mr Fox), Anderson's films seem all of a piece, conjuring a private and innocent world more or less untouched by reality. It is a place designed for children with a precocious urge to be adults, the sort who would puff on corncob pipes and who see the point of both Françoise Hardy and Benjamin Britten. Or is it actually a place for adults who can't bear to part from their inner child?