Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
This post originally ran on VeryAware.com
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Have you ever sat in a movie theater expecting one emotion to overtake you, but walking away with the total opposite feeling? If so, then this is the column for you! It’s my turn to air my gripes – or rather one major gripe – with indie-darling Wes Anderson’s MOONRISE KINGDOM. I must warn you: While I – and quite possibly the filmmaker – may not consider this to be a spoiler, if you haven’t seen the film, I suggest you come back to this page after seeing it. For all others, read on.
First and foremost, let me start by saying I’m a big fan of Anderson’s previous work. THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX and THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS are my two favorites. He’s one of the few filmmakers who’s able to inject his witty charm into some pretty dark territory. Skilled at dry, black humor, he can make even the most unlikeable characters appealing and relatable. I expected the same would be true with his newest MOONRISE KINGDOM. To a certain extent it was, but come the 40 minute mark I was blindsided!
While most of the film is wonderfully sweet in its sentimentality towards a simpler time, there’s one scene that’s not a wistful charmer: When the Khaki Scouts’ mascot, a dog named Snoopy, is killed.
Young and tragically misunderstood lovers Sam (played by the utterly adorable Jared Gilman) and Suzy (played by the devastatingly talented Kara Hayward) run off together on the island of New Penzance in the Summer of 1965. Soon after their “escape,” their parents and guardians find them missing. To aid in the search, sheriff Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) deputizes Sam’s troop of Khaki Scouts (who are like Boy Scouts but more “Anderson-esque”) – all of whom hate Sam. Sharp tells them to find and bring back the missing lovebirds. They comply, and bring weapons even when specifically told it won’t be necessary. But a scout must always be prepared! When the scouts find Suzy and Sam, a standoff ensues, and its wake includes a motorcycle in a tree, a tween bleeding from being stabbed in the back… and Snoopy dead from an arrow.
It’s shocking and jarring, and took me out of the film for a good while. Was it done to signal the end of childhood naiveté, and push Sam, Suzy and the Scouts into adulthood? Was it done to show the sobering consequences of childish violence? Does it showcase the harsh realities of coming of age? Perhaps – but none of those intentions come across. Instead, the death is followed by a joke: “Was he a good dog?” Suzy asks. “Who’s to say?” Sam retorts. They shrug and move along on their journey, unfazed. They don’t mourn, they don’t change their thinking, they don’t re-examine their quest one bit. They react like robots. How are we supposed to care about characters who care so little about the loss of a presumably-beloved pet? Unless we’re supposed to stop rooting for them, their attitude is unsettlingly cold.
Later, the Scouts decide to switch sides and help Sam and Suzy, rendering their whole battle and the dog’s death pointless. The lone ‘villainous’ ringleader scout – whom, if I recall, was not the one wielding the bow – remarks about Snoopy’s death, “It couldn’t be helped.” No one in the story is affected by the loss of this sweet wire-haired terrier, and no one suffers any consequences. At least the characters seemed to give a crap about the stabbed scout’s injury – and that alone could have shown the consequences of their violence. Snoopy’s death is treated with disturbingly callous disregard. His corpse is presumably still out in those woods at the end of the story.
I had a similar reaction during ANCHORMAN, when Ron Burgundy’s dog Baxter was kicked off a bridge. This incredibly cruel act was also played for a laugh, but took me out of the film. It was especially jarring because of a similar real-life story several years ago, in which a woman’s beloved dog was thrown into traffic and killed by a man filled with road rage. At least Baxter turned up safe, and Ron was heavily affected by the loss and return of his pet.
I can almost hear y’all getting ready to call me a hypocrite for liking THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, because a dog dies in that film too. But the difference in TENENBAUMS is that it was done at the end of the film, rather than the middle, and Buckley the Beagle’s death brought about real change in both Eli Cash (Owen Wilson) and Chazz Tenenbaum (Ben Stiller). There was even a memorial service for the dog. While I’d prefer no dogs be ever put in peril, at least Buckley’s demise had a purpose in the story, and more of an impact than Snoopy’s. There are countless movies where a beloved pet’s death is given the gravitas it deserves, having major effects on the characters, going all the way back to OLD YELLER.
In my screening of MOONRISE KINGDOM, the reactions seemed mixed. Most seemed stunned by the dog’s death, and many laughed at the lines that followed. It certainly seemed polarizing. Perhaps I’m more sensitive than most to animals being harmed in movies (www.doesthedogdie.com is a helpful reference for folks like me). Will many others be left with the same feeling I was? Who’s to say. But I would suggest this to present and future filmmakers: A world like ours, that sees a new story about animal cruelty every day, doesn’t need any more that provide nothing but cheap humor and shock value.