REVIEW: Where the Wild Things Are

29 10 2009

Wild ThingsLet me start off by addressing the chief complaint with “Where the Wild Things Are“: I am sick and tired of hearing people talk about how it is not a kids movie.  It is.  But director Spike Jonze is an auteur, not willing to follow the conventions of typical light, kiddie fare.  He has made a movie that portrays childhood with blunt and sometimes brutal honesty.  He dares to show the bleaker side of being 9 years old, desiring to be grown up but unequipped and somewhat oblivious to handle the realities of the adult world.  The reason there is such an outcry is because movies for children have been so dumbed down that childhood itself is just reduced to the fun and games.  But when a movie like “Where the Wild Things” comes along and shows the full spectrum, American families mistake it for pompous art-house fare in disguise.

Writers Jonze and Dave Eggers (“Away We Go”) had all of 350 words from which to create a plot that could sustain a feature length film.  What the two spawn is nothing short of miraculous, paying the correct amount of respect to Sendak’s book while conceiving a new story that deserves to be remembered for years to come.  Rather than bore you with a plot summary that you could just as easily find on Wikipedia or Fandango, I will liken it to something that most cinephiles will recognize.  “Where the Wild Things Are” is like “The Graduate” of kids movies.  You might scoff at this comparison at first glance, but stick with me.  A boy on the cusp of two worlds is forced to confront the actualities of coming of age.  Yet this responsibility frightens him, and he reverts to the devices of immaturity associated with youth and naiveté.  Although each deals with in their own way – Benjamin Braddock with sexual affairs and Max by escaping into a place he could only imagine – both have to accept this juvenility is not a viable way to live, a revelation that occurs mainly because of the people around them.  Ultimately, he takes the steps towards entering the world which he once feared.  But the last shots of both movies suggest that with one foot in the door, they approach further only with great trepidation.

If you have already heard about the long process of bringing “Where the Wild Things Are” to the screen, I apologize for the rerun.  But everyone should know about Spike Jonze’s incredible toil to make the movie that he had envisioned for over a decade.  Without his perseverance and commitment, the movie would never have been completed.  Maurice Sendak, the author of the source material, gave Jonze permission to make the movie back in 1995.  He was a fan of the book as a child and wanted to make it as he saw it while leaving it open enough to where people could still see their own interpretation in it.  In order to achieve this, he felt it was necessary to cast a “real kid” in the main role of Max.  He found young Max Records fit this bill after an audition that included attacking his parents with a plastic sword and batting away Nerf bullets with an umbrella.

While this might seem like a slam dunk, Jonze faced many troubles that would destroy anyone with less determination.  His first production company, Universal Pictures, dropped the project because they felt it was not commercially feasible.  Luckily, Warner Bros. picked it up, but the struggles still continued.  Thankfully, Jonze decided not to use computer animation to bring the Wild Things to life, opting for giant puppet suits with expressions that could be controlled by a remote.  The suits were very heavy and did not allow for the performers inside to mimic the actors who were lending their voice to the character, so the decision was made to remove the circuitry that made facial expressions from the suits and they would be added on later via animatronics.  By this point, Warner Bros. was growing frustrated, but they were willing to wait for Jonze to make a movie that would both fulfill his vision and make some money.  The script was retooled and eight more days of shooting occurred for that to happen. Ultimately, what results is something worth the wait and the uphill battle for Jonze: true moviemaking magic that is warmly sentimental while challenging our views on authority and community.

My only real complaint with “Where the Wild Things Are” was that I wish I could have seen more.  By the time that I was able to put a name to a creature, the movie was already vamping up to its climax.  Sadly, I know that there could have been more because Eggers published a 300 page novel elaborating on the screenplay he wrote with Jonze.  For those interested, it is called “The Wild Things,” and it is probably worth a read.  I love Eggers’ writing style, and I felt that with this movie, he was able to capture the essence of human emotion in its most raw form without getting tangled up in unnecessary complication.  His Max is able to highlight the riot inside all of us, and he makes the character relatable on a level that I reserve for only the most iconic literary figures.

“Where the Wild Things Are” is nothing short of a towering achievement in cinema, one of 2009’s most ambitious and most capable of capitalizing on that ambition.  Jonze’s artistry shines bright, and hopefully the luster will not be taken off his masterful work by those who expected him to make a emotionally removed, run-of-the-mill kid’s movie.  Children can still enjoy it even though it may not be quite as frenetically exciting as an “Astro Boy” or “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.”  As they grow older and more mature, they will be able to understand and appreciate it for the true work of art that it is as well as its willingness to treat childhood with the respect it deserves.  A- / 3halfstars



One response

29 10 2009

I agree completely that Jonze should be commended for making a movie about childhood that illustrates youth in its entirety, and not just as fun-filled gauzy days of joy. It’s unfortunate that modern audiences seem to demand light-hearted, happy fare in movies that focus on children.

I can’t share your full enthusiasm for the film, though, because I couldn’t really engage with it emotionally. I appreciated it as an artistic achievement and a thoughtful contemplation on childhood dreams (and how they aren’t all that different from reality), but I felt the characters weren’t sufficiently developed to get me hooked. Still, there’s no denying that it’s an impressive, laudable motion picture.

If you’re interested, here’s my review:

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