Saturday, October 17, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are

American writer/artist Maurice Sendak wrote his signature children's book Where the Wild Things Are in 1963. Since then many people have wanted to make a movie of the book but had had so much trouble with it that it'd been deemed by most, "unfilmable". Not surprising, considering that the book only contains something like nine or ten sentences. But its imagery is so striking that many people, like me, remember the what the Wild Things look like, even if we haven't read the book in 20 or so years. Well, brilliantly odd director Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation.) has directed an adaptation of the succinct classic into an hour and a half long film combining live action actors, animatronics, and CGI.

The story, like that in the book, involves a young boy (maybe 10 or 12 years old) named Max, who is sent to bed without supper for "making mischief". But he escapes to his imagination, a magical world where fearsome monsters roam. He becomes their King (hey, it is his world after all) and they dance and play before he becomes homesick and returns to the real world, where his supper is waiting on him, still warm.

Apparently, Jonze went several months in the casting process before finding young Max Records to play Max. It's good that he waited, because the kid is terrific. In the opening sequence, Max builds an igloo out of piled up snow, treating it like a fort, he attacks his older sister and her friends with snowballs as they're about to go out. They laughingly join in, but leave after one of them jumps on top of the igloo (with Max still in it), crushing it and leaving Max snow covered and crying. Max resents that his teenaged sister didn't stand up for him, or comfort him, or anything like that. Leaving him lonely and upset. He takes his anger and frustration out on her room, smashing things and leaving copious amounts of snow to melt all over. He apologizes when his mom gets home, and they go about cleaning up the mess. But when he rebels again later that night (when his mom's boyfriend is over), he rebels a bit too much and is sent to his room. This sequence is done with such loving detail to the feelings of childhood that I was prepared for true greatness from the rest of the movie. Jonze and Records are able to bring out such hurt and sadness out of Max and his lonely life (a loving single mom who is stretched a bit too thin to give him the constant attention he needs, a disinterested sister, seemingly no friends). We understand completely Max's need to get away, and escape to his imagination. Maybe having been the younger brother who got left out of things makes me connect to this a bit more than some people might, I often escaped to my imagination at that age. Regrettably, the movie gets both more and less impressive once Max arrives in his untamed imaginary world.

The Wild Things themselves are quite impressive. A wonderful voice cast consisting of James Gandolfini, Chris Cooper, Paul Dano, Catherine O'Hara, Lauren Ambrose, and Forest Whitaker, really help bring these strange characters to life. They're aided in this by a wonderful mix of people in giant Wild Thing suits, with CGI faces (and occasionally aided in their movements as well). The CGI was, I thought, flawless. It's a stunning technical achievement for the special effects crew and Jonze's ability to always make the characters seem like they're in the same plane of existence as our live action hero. Not for a second did I think of them as anything but their characters, it was tremendously well done. Jonze was also assisted in the movie by his regular cinematographer Lance Acord, who contributes some truly incredible photography. It's beautifully filmed in such a way to bring out the nostalgic feelings of childhood, but dark enough to not let us forget about the scares we had as children too.

Sadly, I just lost interest in the story about two-thirds of the way through. It really does feel like there just wasn't enough story to justify the runtime of a feature length movie. Jonze slows down the pacing, thankfully, instead of trying to hype things up for the kids in the audience. But still, I just wasn't as emotionally involved in the land of the Wild Things as I was in the real world. It could be because this wasn't the type of imaginary world I escaped to as a child, or because I'm no longer a child who escapes away to my imagination, but I don't think so. There are plenty of childrens movies that allow me to empathize and escape to a different world with the characters. I just think that it wasn't affecting enough in its extended story to grab me. Still, so much of the movie is extraordinary that I can't help but recommend it, despite its flaws. Lack of story is a big flaw, but the rest of the movie makes up for it overall. A classic childrens book has been made into a good movie, even if I don't think it will make people forget about the book through the years. We'll come back to it more often than we'll come back to the movie, but that's not such a bad thing, is it?

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