Thursday, October 22, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are

"You Don't Need to Know Me. I'm Kind of a Downer"

Spike Jonze's adaptation (with Dave Eggers) of Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are" is a one-of-a-kind visual treata live-action transformation of Sendak's illustrations in big furry three dimensions, amid stark landscapes of forests, sand dunes and vast beaches that a kid would want to scamper in. Anything but bucolic, it's a weird world of the psyche where young Max (Max Records) must sort out his conflicted kid-emotions of wildness and security, of independence and family, and his own way of self-sabotaging things he likes. At his age, Max is his own worst enemy, and to find his demons he journeys to a land of monsters who play out facets of his personality, trying to make them act in harmony. There's plenty of time to rumpus, but more time is spent putting the pieces back together.

Little Max is already in a world of his own. When we first see him, he's making one of his many enclosures, an igloo, that will stand in for any number of "forts" that he constructs as his own fantasy version of a house, a home—one that he can control, rather than his parents.

Or parent. Max's mom (
Catherine Keener) is a working Mom, not at home much, and Big Sister has her "crowd"—Max might as well be on his own. So, when things blow up at home, he runs away to the woods, where after some dreamy slo-mo dissolves, he finds a boat and sails off (on a rather scary trip) to an island of monsters in the process of tearing apart their own homes. There's Carol, the most destructive one, and Judith and Ira, needy and neurotic, Douglas, a loyal bird, Alexander, a sensitive goat, the Bull—who stands alone—and KW, a nurturing monster. They're bickering and feuding and in disarray, but Max unites them by telling him he was a king, and soon he gives them direction, purpose, fun...and, inevitably conflict.

The work realizing the Wild Things is incredible: Jim Henson's Creature Shop has made nine foot tall creatures (although they were closer to Max's size in the book), and some expressive CGI completes the illusion of the enormously dexterous faces. The personalities are breathed into the creatures by the voice-actors playing the characters: Catherine O'Hara as Judith, Forest Whitaker as Ira, Chris Cooper as Douglas, Paul Dano as Alexander, and Lauren Ambrose as KW. But standing above them all is James Gandolfini as the conflicted Carol. Although it's just Gandolfini's voice (the creatures were played by puppeteers in the suits), he invests his entire soul in it. Indeed, no performance has depended so much on a star's wheezing nasal passages and breath patterns than anywhere outside a Yimou Zhang film.

Sendak's book only has ten sentences in it. And Eggars and Jonze have expanded it by delving deep into the psychology of the thing to examine the rending forces of having a personality and having to be dependent, of knowing enough to get you into trouble but not knowing what you don't know, or reacting without knowing why—the animal instincts of being a human child.
The maturing journey that is the core of Sendak's storyof confronting your demons and making peace with them—breaks down into a series of compromises and political choices that will create the greatest good, and the film ends with one of the quietest and most compelling depictions of the give-and-take of a child-parent relationship that has ever graced the screen.



I can't imagine a kid sitting through this movie without feeling like he's being punished. It's a dinner of nothing but vegetables. It's a Christmas only getting clothes. A bun and no weinie. Playtime with Dr. Bruno Bettleheim (carrying a clipboard). It's something an adult thinks is good for a kid.

It's a doctoral thesis on Sendak's book put to screen. It's smart and intuitive and beautiful. The one thing it isn't is fun.

Oh, there are laughs. It's frequently amusing, in a telling kind of way. Telling doesn't do it for a kid. Ya gotta show 'em. And kids will enjoy the playing and the rumpus and the tunnels and the dirt-clods fight, but the squabbling monsters are going to put frowns on their faces and questions in their heads. As gramma used to say "It's always fun until the monsters start crying."

A kid's movie succeeds when it enchants the child and engages the parent. It's a major blunder, however, to make a children's movie that only appeals to your inner adult.

"Where the Wild Things Are" is a Matinee.


John said...

I felt that the film wasn't targeted at children at all... but to adults (like myself) who grew up reading the book and have the iconography of its characters imprinted in our souls. I loved every second of it... and recommend it to every 30 something that I know. But wouldn't really suggest it to many 10 year olds.

Yojimbo_5 said...

I stand by the last two lines of the review.

You may be right that the film-makers didn't target the film to kids at all. If they didn't, they're dumber than I thought.