People Tell Me I Look Like Han Solo.
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
  Review: Where the Wild Things Are
I may as well just cut to the chase: Where the Wild Things Are is a wonderful, amazing movie, one of the best I’ve seen this year, maybe ever. It’s beautiful and warm and touching and heartbreaking and fantastic and joyous. It’s basically got everything that makes me love movies (with the possible exception of guns and samurai swords, but hey, you can’t win ‘em all).

Where the Wild Things Are, as everyone knows by now, is director Spike Jonze’s adaptation of the beloved Maurice Sendak children’s book. I vaguely remember the book from my own childhood, but it didn’t resonate with me the way it clearly has with lots of other people. Which is fine; my not being a huge fan of the book clearly didn’t affect my enjoyment of this brilliant movie. And considering the source material is only a few dozens of words in length, Jonze and screenwriter Dave Eggers obviously have a lot of room to work in terms of narrative (I, like a lot of people, really only remember Sendak’s illustrations, and they’re recreated gorgeously on the screen). Where the Wild Things Are follows Max, a rowdy young boy who’s prone to acting out for attention from older sister and his single mom (Catherine Keener, giving her character surprising depth in the two or three scenes she has). After one particularly ugly fight before dinner (he’s mad his mom invited her new boyfriend; the whereabouts of Max’s father are never explained, but his absence clearly looms large in Max’s life), Max angrily runs out of the house and through some brush until he finds a boat, which he sails to a mysterious island populated by big, furry monsters who talk like people. Max soon sets himself up as the Wild Things’ new king – he seems to catch them in the middle of some sort of internal struggle amongst their little family unit – and before long he’s having fun playing with his new friends.

But despite the book’s pedigree, Jonze’s and Eggers’ Where the Wild Things Are is really not a kid’s movie. It’s more of a movie about childhood than it is a movie for children. Which is not to say that it’s not appropriate for youngsters or too scary for them (there are two scenes where Jonze plays up the Wild Things’ monstrous aspects, but they’re not that scary, and both serve the story), but rather too boring for kids. There was a hipster couple who brought their two young children to the screening I was at (neither kid could have been older than five), and they weren’t scared, they just weren’t interested in the movie at all; it was too talky for them, and young children who can’t sit still for two hours probably can’t really appreciate a beautifully-composed shot of Max and one of the Wild Things walking across a desert.

Where the Wild Things Are is about growing up and leaving childish things behind, and the “fun” Jonze focuses on, the kind of thing Max loves to do and nobody wants to do with him back in the real world, seems largely to consist of boyish horseplay, wrestling and “playing war” with dirt clods and smashing trees and sticks in the woods. (I did all of those things as a kid, so I had a big grin on my face during all of these sequences.) Considering Jonze’s crucial role in the inception of Jackass, it’s hard not to see his Where the Wild Things Are as a sort of childlike, wonder-filled prot0-Jackass.

But Where the Wild Things Are is also a bit of a difficult film for me to really judge objectively, as I felt a very personal connection to Max. My folks may not have split up, but I grew up an only child who kept to himself, so Max being a an angry, lonely kid who doesn’t really know how to process his feelings and who seeks sanctuary in imaginary worlds really struck a chord with me personally, so it’s entirely possible that this movie just clicks with me on levels it may not with other people. I certainly can’t tell.

I definitely have to mention the acting in Where the Wild Things Are. The ludicrously-named Max Records, who plays Max, is one of the best child actors I’ve seen in ages. It never felt like he was performing (which is a problem among even some of the better child actors), and he’s so natural that his work goes a long way to making the viewer just sort of accept the film’s reality. This kid turn into a big deal some day.

The actors playing Wild Things themselves are all brilliant. James Gandolfini delivers a real performance as Carol, the Wild Things’ sort of de facto leader and Max’s closest friend in the group. I’m sure it won’t happen, but Gandolfini deserves some sort of awards attention for his work here, because it’s really something. And Jonze deserves praise for casting “real” actors (Forest Whitaker, Chris Cooper, Catherine O’Hara, Lauren Ambrose, Paul Dano) to voice the Wild Things, all of them talking just like normal people, nary a goofy, put-on voice to be heard. It’s another thing that lifts Where the Wild Things Are above typical children’s fare.

The special effects for the Wild Things themselves are also incredible, done with a combination of Jim Henson suits and CGI effects for their faces. I was surprised at how quickly I just sort of accepted them as characters and stopped looking at them as the amazing combination of practical and digital effects they are. The Wild Things actually emote in a way that feels real, and Gandolfini’s Carol, in particular, has scenes so genuinely moving that George Lucas and James Cameron will probably sign a suicide pact after they see this movie.

Where the Wild Things Are is about the end of childhood, very much from an adult’s perspective, and the film has a real melancholy feel to it. While it only really gets sad at the end (and I admit I got a little choked up), there’s a pervading sense of sadness to even the most joyous scenes; even if Max doesn’t realize it, we all know his time with the Wild Things is only a temporary refuge from the world he ran away from. Even near the end, Jonze and Eggers do an excellent job of having the realities of the outside world subtly begin to intrude on Max’s paradise as the internal politics of the Wild Things, which were only hinted at in early scenes, begin to come to the surface and threaten his new life.

The real thrust of the film is Max basically learning his lesson and growing up a bit. He’s at the age where acting out in a childish manner – screaming, throwing fits, actively disobeying his mother, even attacking her – is starting to seem less like him just being a kid and more like him being an actual problem child. He’s getting bigger and stronger, and it’s not “cute” anymore. While he understood enough at the beginning of the film to feel guilty almost immediately after trashing his older sister’s room in a fit of childish rage, his adventures with the Wild Things really hammer home to him the impact his actions have on the people he loves.

Where the Wild Things Are is a triumph of filmmaking, and while it’s only the third film Spike Jonze has made in 10 years, it’s looking like a masterpiece. (And kudos also to writer Dave Eggers, who, between this and the wonderful Away We Go
my review is here – is proving with his first two scripts that he’s better at combining humor and true emotion better than almost any other screenwriter in Hollywood.) Where the Wild Things Are is truly amazing stuff, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.


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