A Slice of Fried Gold

Where the Wild Things Are review

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Maurice Sendak’s beloved classic children’s book Where the Wild Things Are for a long time was considered almost entirely impossible to adapt. How does one convert a book from something that takes approximately 2 minutes to read into something that makes sense over the long haul of feature lengths? It seemed to be an unattainable goal, yet visionary director Spike Jonze (Adaptation, Being John Malkovich, uncountable amounts of music videos) and esteemed author Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, You Shall Know My Velocity!) targeted that specific ambitious and moderately insane objective. What comes out is a deeply insular and intensely emotional interpretation of the book that is decidedly not for children, but for those who hold wild things in their heart and don’t know what to do with them.

Jonze and Eggers take the same basic set up from the book (a kid named Max with a vivid imagination gets in trouble with his mom and then visits a land of wild things instead of dealing with his anger, rage and torment in standard ways) and fleshes it out dramatically. Now, Max has a sister who ignores him and allows her friends to hurt him (albeit accidentally), his mother (Catherine Keener, insert indie success story from past decade/both Jonze films) is a divorcee who is looking for love and is struggling as the only breadwinner for the house, and Max (Max Records, The Brothers Bloom) is an oddly anti-social and imaginative child with a penchant for putting on a wolf suit and raising holy hell. Upon one of those instances, Max flips out and screams “Feed me, woman!” at his mother. Much anger occurs, Max departs in a hurry as his mother chases him, and he finds a boat to escape to worlds of unknown origin.

This world ends up being the world of wild things, and from there he meets a ragtag group of wild things all going through an emotional time of chaos and confusion. There’s the leader Carol (James Gandolfini), his right hand man Douglas (Chris Cooper), the enigmatic and influential KW (Lauren Ambrose), the couple of Ira and Judith (Forest Whitaker and Catherine O’Hara), ignored goat and champion of ridiculousness Alexander (Paul Dano), and the quiet and sad character who just goes by The Bull (Michael Berry, Jr.). These characters quickly anoint Max their King after a little deliberation as to whether or not they should eat him, and as his first proclamation Max and his subjects go on the WILD RUMPUS! All is well in Wild Thing Ville, but alas, as it tends to happen in movies, these things are not built to last.

The rest of the film is all about the development of Max’s relationship with these characters and the establishment of what each of these characters mean to Max. While he may not understand it himself, these characters are Max (and in my opinion, are people in his life) and the emotions he’s been going through. Judith is his side that trusts nothing, Alexander is the side of him who feels ignored even though he tries not to be, the Bull is his invisible side, etc. etc. Ultimately though, the two characters who matter the most are Carol (the wild thing who embodies the majority of Max’s persona) and KW (the character who represents his trusting and loving side, and to me, represents his sister as well). Their interactions are the crux for the rest of the wild things – if their relationship is off, the whole thing falls apart.

Going into this film, you’re built to expect a romp through childhood dreams and absolute fun for an hour and a half. While this is a brilliant job of marketing (positioning it as a moody think piece about the tenuous emotional states of children probably would have been a bad idea), this does create unfair expectations in viewers. Whenever you’re expecting one thing and receive another, you feel cheated and respond generally in defiance to said project. This has happened with this film, as a lot of the people who were excited for it have strongly disliked it. But what Jonze and Eggers have done here is something far more special, as they took a lithe and wondrous childhood picture book and turned it into one of the better studies of what children do to survive the traumas in their life. The vivid imagination that Max has and Jonze demonstrates on screen (the choice to go with large costumes instead of CGI was a brilliant one, as it gives the actions on screen real tangibility) is alternately beautiful, dreamy, demented, terrifying, shocking, and completely endearing, and those six words describe this film very well.

Jonze really has created a shockingly beautiful film here, with some of the shots being almost hauntingly gorgeous and painstakingly artistic. Combined with the performances of the voice actors and the work of Karen O. (of Yeah Yeah Yeah’s fame) on the score, which in itself is childish and schizophrenic, yet luscious and dreamy, make this film a pretty damn incredible one. The only thing that brings this film down really is the nearly glacial pace, as really, there is very little in terms of dramatic tension besides simply waiting for the activities of this world to play out. We know what’s going to happen, but the unfurling of the story is perhaps a bit slower than necessary, and something that leads this tired as hell viewer to nearly nod off from time to time.

Of course, given the nature of this filmic adaptation and the trials and tribulations Jonze and Eggers had to go through, what they’ve accomplished is nothing short of monumental. Working closely with Maurice Sendak likely ensured that at least their primary audience was pleased, and that they stayed within the central themes that the creator of the story always intended. This will eternally be one of those love it or hate it type films, however, early reports are in: this guy loves it and strongly recommends it. So long as you don’t bring kids. This movie is basically a children’s torture device.

Where the Wild Things Are: B+


Bobbie said...

Hmm, kids book made into non-kid friendly movie? I guess taking Em to see it is out of the picture?

David Harper said...

Emily could handle it. She's pretty precocious and would be able to understand it. But to be fair, Maurice Sendak himself said what Jonze/Eggers came up with is what he always intended.

Bobbie said...

We'll still see it. I think it looks awesome, and if Maurice Sendak approves it's a win - win.

Samantha K said...

one of the main things that make this movie seem less "child-like" was the actors they chose for the voices, especially James Gandolfini

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