Sunday, October 18, 2009

A maddeningly beautiful trip to "Where the Wild Things Are"


Of all the wild and raw emotions flying around in Spike Jonze's "Where the Wild Things Are," the one I hadn't counted on feeling during the flick was sympathy for all the studio suits who had to market it.

When they finally sat down to watch it, however, rather than fighting with Jonze for years and years, I'm confident that like me, most of them found that - despite the movie's often-lumbering pace - he got all you possibly could and more out of Maurice Sendak's magical book by turning it into a glimpse into a 9-year-old's troubled mind.

And it certainly helps that the 9-year-old in question was played by Max Records, though the studio fought him on that choice too. As the movie Max, young Mr. Records captures his state of mind perfectly, wanting to be - and often acting like - a savage while at the same time unable to mask the fear and doubt that cloud up his life. As he rampages through the woods with his wild creations, Jonze isn't afraid to let young Max get as sweaty and snotty (enough to match his attitude) as a kid would left to his own devices. My favorite Max moment, however, came early on as you see the perfectly reasonable horror on his face after a teacher tells him the sun is going to die. It's all around certainly the best movie performance by a youngster this year.

In fact, what I was most surprised to find about Jonze's movie is that, as magical as the realm of Max's wild things often is, the best segment is the first 20 minutes or so that take place in Max's often-cruel (at least in his eyes) real world. Jonze and screenwriter Dave Eggers deftly flesh out the details that will shape Max's fantasy world once he runs away from it all, from his sister's friends who destroy his igloo (but only after he started a snowball fight) to his sister and mother who don't pay enough attention to him. Best of all is that, though it's a small role, the writers and Catherine Keener quickly turn the mother into a harried, lonely but mostly sympathetic character (and I loved that scene where she distracted herself from the tedium of work by typing into a report the much-more-fun story she cajoles Max into telling her about the consequences of vampires biting buildings.)

But, of course, it's supposed to be all about the wild things here, and that's where the movie will lose some audience members - young and old - because of just how morose they often turn out to be. Here too, however, it's still written with a lively spirit as it is all filmed by Jonze and cinematographer Lance Acord with an inquisitive touch, always making us uninvited guests at this savage summit of creatures infused with all of Max's simmering frustrations.

What made it all work so well for me was that though there are often some complicated psychological issues being hashed out, Jonze and Eggers have enough confidence in the audience that they never tell us directly what's going on but instead just let it all unfold in front of us, often in the most beautiful ways. It's the alluring landscape (in Australia, if I'm not mistaken) juxtaposed with the consequences of the wild things acting out all of Max's most savage wishes (the snowball fight turns into a dirt clomp fight, and the igloo becomes the greatest fort of all time) that give the movie most of its power.

And though the actors who voice the wild things all do a a great job (James Gandolfini as Max's alter ego Carol and Lauren Ambrose as K.W., who embodies Max's sister, in particular), it's the CGI folks who create the facial expressions for the wild things who are some of the real stars. The thing that bugs me most about computer-enhanced animation is that, particularly with human beings, they just get more and more bizarre as animators try to make them look more "real." With the wild things, however, using giant puppet suits from the Henson shop that are inhabited with actors other than the voice stars, the emotions portrayed through computer animation are more moving and ultimately satisfying than anything ever created by the power of 3-D.

I've probably gone on long enough about all this splendid mess, but I wanted to take issue with one particularly annoying criticism that I read of the ending (but the critic will remain nameless - no name-calling here.) If you somehow don't know how the story ends and don't want to, please just skip to the next paragraph. When Max finally returns home after learning that "All Is Love" (as expressed in the often-enchanting soundtrack by Karen O and the Kids, which you can listen to here by clicking on the widget at right) and that, no matter how big a fort you build, you really can't "keep all the sadness out," he's welcomed home by a relieved Keener with a smile and a warm meal. One rather snotty and condescending review I read of this flick took big issue with this because Max is never punished for first berating his mother (and threatening to eat her!) and then, of course, running away. Well, I'm not a parent myself, but if my kid had run away like that, though I'd certainly be a little angry, I certainly hope I'd first be happy to have him back and give him the meal he so impetuously skipped out on. Punishment may surely have come, but in that instant, I thought Keener, a definite favorite around these parts, just captured the moment perfectly.

And in the end, I suppose all those Warner Bros folks who fought this before ultimately giving in and putting together a rather brilliant marketing campaign certainly have to be smiling now that the flick took in $12 million on Friday alone and clobbered all its competitors. Huzzah to that, and if you haven't seen it yet, I encourage all movie fans young in body and heart to take it all in. Peace out.

36 comments:

Nell Minow said...

I loved the movie and I loved the way you captured it, Keith. I am all for consequences in movies and in life, but I thought it was exactly right to have that pure and conciliatory ending, as well as utterly consistent with the book. Wordlessly, both acknowledged that they had made mistakes. And it was clear that Max understood for the first time what it means to be responsible for someone else, especially someone you love. I thought it was an exquisite moment.

Reel Fanatic said...

I knew you would like it, Nell .. I see that it's only about about 70 percent positive at Rotten Tomatoes, which is probably about the best that could be expected, but it at least made more money than the ridiculously low bar set by Warner Brothers .. and you're right - did anyone really expect to change the ending of the book, which is just perfect?

Where the wild things are 2009 said...

I can't say I hated Where the Wild Things Are and the film had a lot of admirable qualities but overall the pacing was very poor and the film was so weepy and grim that I started to resent it midway through.

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