Friday, October 16, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

Based on the much-beloved (for good reason) 1963 children’s book by Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are had much to live up to, a fact not helped by the transcendent short film that was its wildly-acclaimed teaser trailer. So it is with great joy, and no small amount of exhilaration, that I can report that Spike Jonze’s film is a gem. It’s a beautiful playground of a movie, wild and rambunctious, scary and sad, fun and funny. It’s not only a great family film and a daringly imaginative piece of filmmaking; it’s also Jonze’s best film to date (and that’s saying something after the wildly creative, but totally inappropriate for family viewing, Being John Malkovich and Adaptation). Here kids, and the whole family, are given a great treat. It’s a moving experience and a wonderfully crafted film.

Jonze, working from a lovingly adapted screenplay by novelist Dave Eggers, shoots the film with a startling specificity, positioning the camera at the level of a child’s point-of-view, following Max (played very well by young Max Records) as he wanders through his daily life. Jonze and Eggers have said that they didn’t want to “make a children’s movie but a movie about a child.” They have succeeded. The camera can be buoyant or frantically hand-held in one sequence, quiet and still in the next, capturing the rhythms of childhood. It’s down to even the littlest things that the film gets perfectly right: the way Max builds his snow-fort in the opening scene, pausing to sneak a taste; the way he sprawls at the feet of his mother (a warm performance from Catherine Keener) while she works, gently pulling at the toes of her socks; the way he is effortlessly creative and loving, or worried, lonely, and angry.

After a temper-tantrum, Max flees into his imagination, finding himself arriving at the shores of a place where Wild Things are. They are massive, fearsome and loveable creatures (perfectly voiced by James Gandolfini, Catherine O’Hara, Chris Cooper, Lauren Ambrose, Paul Dano and Forest Whitaker) who are practically extensions of his personality. Max will be their king, and, difficult though they can be, he will learn to love them. By learning to deal with them, lessons will be learned, but this is thankfully not a story of easy moralizing and empty advice. This is also not a picture-book adaptation that goes overboard with padding out the story with false conflict or unnecessary exposition. (Why did Ron Howard think we needed to see The Grinch as a child?) This is a vibrant, messy, wondrous film with endless charm and invention (not to mention a great soundtrack by Karen O and Carter Burwell).

The world of the Wild Things is a realistically fantastical one, with sweeping landscapes (forest and ocean, desert and cliff) both amazing and foreboding. As for the creatures themselves, they are easily identifiable as the ones from the book, their designs perfectly replicated from the illustrations, but they have a surprising tangibility to them thanks to a marvelous mix of puppetry, suits, and CGI, that gives them a sense of weight and warmth. I felt like I could reach out and run my fingers through their fur, feel the warmth of their bodies, sense the vibrations of their thudding footsteps.

The Wild Things (seemingly more childlike and more adult than Max) have their fun and their foibles, their quirks and the squabbles. The problems and pleasures of these creatures are similar to what we’ve already seen in the life of Max, but it’s not a simple matter of “A” equals “B”, like Ms. Gulch equals the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz. Aspects of personalities and situations are reminiscent, but not identical, to the real world. Max is learning about life through his imaginative play, dreaming perchance to live.

Because of the realistic nature of the fantasy, there’s a small sense of danger, as if Max’s imagination could threaten to take over, yet I always sensed that he was safe, because ultimately he was in control of his own fantasy land, thoroughly immersed in it though he may be. Like Max with the Wild Things, the movie is a journey into another viewpoint. It offers the chance to view the world through the eyes of a little boy. It’s a strong sensation, one that could easily be nostalgic, but Jonze and Eggers don’t tip the film in that direction. They know that to be a child is to be small and without control in a world full of people bigger, more powerful than you. Throughout the film, there are several shots of Max looking at those older than him (his sister and her friends, his teacher, his mother and her boyfriend) and we get the sense that he’s staring into a mysterious world only half-comprehensible, so it’s only natural that, to process his feelings, he flees into another mysterious world with large creatures, one that’s only a little easier to understand but one in which he is king.

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