Friday, October 16, 2009

Where The Wild Things Are (****)

Directed by Spike Jonze


I'll admit that I cannot be fair when reviewing this film. As a child, I was read the original story in beds, libraries, and classrooms. It was a seminal story of my childhood, and many others who I grew up with. It takes a lot of guts to make a feature-length film out of a much-celebrated, award-winning book that is all but ten sentences long. Where The Wild Things Are, based on the beloved book by Maurice Sendak, attempts to pull off this feat, and does it quite beautifully.

Like the book, the film follows Max (Max Records), a rambunctious young boy who thrives on adventure and mayhem. He finds solace in creating forts out of anything from snow or bedsheets. He's a very charming young man, but not all is going great in his home. His older sister has discovered boys, and could care less about hanging around her goofy little brother. His mother (Catherine Keener), though sweet and loving, is frustrated by a demanding job and Max's absent father. This all leaves Max alienated with his own wondrous imagination.

When Max's mother invites her new boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo) over for dinner, Max becomes indignant and rebellious. His mother wants none of it, and pleads for him to not embarrass her. "I'll eat you up!" Max declares, before jumping on top of her and taking a bite out of her shoulder. After a deep scolding, Max runs out of his home, traveling through the outskirts of his town (never discussed, but definitely somewhere northeast, maybe even Canada). He runs until he approaches a small sailboat, and jumps aboard.

Max rides the boat through a violent tempest, before landing on an island----this is the only pure break from the book, where the world is created simply from Max's room--crawling with large, idiosyncratic creatures, "wild things". Before the creatures have a chance to eat him, he declares himself king. They accept this fact without protest, and before long they are taking his orders happily and seeking the benefits of his rule. Being king of the island becomes troublesome, though, when small arguments turn into dissent, and Max must confront the tougher aspects of having responsibility over others.

The most fleshed-out aspect of the film version of Wild Things are Max's adventures on the island with the wild things. Wordless throughout the book, the wild things are now possessed by wonderfully neurotic characteristics and strong personalities. There is the woefully insecure but loyal Carol (James Gandolfini), the sassy, strong-minded Judith (Catherine O'Hara) and her mellow, hole-making lover Ira (Forest Whitaker), the persistent little guy Alexander (Paul Dano), the diplomatic Douglas (Chris Cooper), and the free spirit of KW (Lauren Ambrose). Each with their own specific quirk and endearing quality, they create a gripping heart throughout the film.

Together with Max, the wild things enjoy creating havoc, and their hobbies mostly consist of throwing dirt and building forts. It's a stroke of great subtlety that Max's life outside of the island is not described in explicit detail, instead allowing the wild things to describe the varying degrees of emotion a child must deal with when confronting the awkwardness of prepubescence. The wild things never stand as heavy-handed metaphors, instead playing there part consistently allowing everything else to be shown clearly.

Even when limited to voices, the performances from Gandolfini, Dano, and O'Hara are exceptional, providing some of the more poignant moments of the film. In limited time, Catherine Keener creates a mother character that is at times frazzled and other times warmly maternal. It's hard to be that mixed of emotions in such a short amount of screen time. The star of the show, of course, is Max Records who handles the role of Max with wonderful charm and energy. The performances of children are usually asterisked since its hard to judge their real motivations, but Records gives a performance that seems very honest and sincere to the character. A good deal of the film leans on his shoulders, and he never lets you down.

Those familiar with Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) will recognize that this is a shift in concept, but not in style. He has always been a bit of a wild thing himself, whether he was having Nic Cage playing the two brains of Charlie Kaufman or dancing in front of a building for a Fatboy Slim video. Partnered with Dave Eggers, they created a screenplay which perfectly encompassed the spirit of Sendak's work, even if it didn't exactly copy the plot. In retrospect, Jonze seems like the perfect candidate to rework Wild Things, and it is another film in what is already an impressive filmography.

I'm not sure how much Where The Wild Things Are will succeed as a children's film, since most kids these days are used to being talked down to and treated as incompetents. The wild things are witty and endearing, but they do have moments where they could be scary to a toddler. I'm not sure Jonze is really concerned about the commercial potential for the movie, but I know that he has had to fight to make the film the way he wanted to make it (with an $80 million dollar budget, no less). You have to respect an artist who fights for his own vision, and it makes a great film that much more satisfying.

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