Wednesday, October 21, 2009

In Theaters: Where the Wild Things Are

Where the Wild Things Are poster and IMPAwards link
A lot of the buzz about WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE is focused not on whether or not it’s a good film, but whether it’s a good film for children. The adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s legendary picture book is much darker and less glossy than anyone expects a children’s film to be, and it’s debatable whether it’s a kids’ movie at all. It’s scary in places, sad in others, and has a rough handmade look that allegedly speaks more to hipsters than anyone else. It’s been asked whether this isn’t really a film for people in their late 20s with fond memories of a book from their childhoods, and arguably by belonging to that group, I myself am biased.

I don’t care. This film is a treasure. It is dark, at times anyway, and sad at times, and more introspective than one would be led to expect, but these are not flaws. They’re not virtues either. They’re qualities, they’re what the film is, and in presenting those qualities in the context of a fully-formed story, WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE is a triumph. It’s a powerful, imaginative, sweet, beautifully made story of a child’s imagination and the amazing places he goes in it, and what he learns from it. Director Spike Jonze flaunts just about every convention established in the past decade or so of children’s fantasy filmmaking to deliver a work that is earthy, raw, and as real as the monsters we always knew existed.

Max (Max Records, and yes, that is the actor’s actual name) is a wild kid. He likes to put on a wolf suit, chase the dog around, throw snowballs at his older sister’s friends, and generally get into trouble. He lives with his mother (Catherine Keener), who is divorced and dating, and though the two clearly love each other, sometimes Max is just too much to handle. One night, when she’s trying to entertain a boyfriend, he throws a tantrum and runs away from home, and into a boat, and he takes the boat across the sea until he reaches the land of the Wild Things.

He finds the strange beasts in disarray, with Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini), the sometimes leader, in a destructive tantrum. Convincing the Things that he’s a mighty king who can make everything great and keep them from being sad, Max is crowned the ruler of the land, and lets the Wild Rumpus start. He meets the ornery Alexander (Paul Dano), reliable Douglas (Chris Cooper), sweet KW (Lauren Ambrose), the hole-digging Ira (Forrest Whitaker), downer Judith (Catherine O’ Hara), and the silent Bull. Carol shows Max a project he wants to do, a giant fort for them all to live in, and Max convinces the Wild Things to get started on the ultimate treehouse/fort/castle/city, hewn together from sticks and rocks. Tensions arise between the Things, however, when it’s clear that not even their king can make everything perfect.

The unstated implication is that the Wild Things represent much of what’s going on in Max’s head, and that their conflicts reflect his own disturbances. But to sum up the whole thing as a psychological metaphor doesn’t quite do justice to the messy reality of the Wild Things; they seem like real beings with a life all their own, that just happens to mirror what Max is going through.

There’s a tendency for children’s films to look a certain way and feel a certain way; they have to be bright and colorful and have a kind of sheen to them. Jonze renders THINGS almost entirely in earth tones, and while I normally view this kind of subdued monochromaticism as a visual cliché, in this genre it’s an outright novelty. The warm colors, the plainly real locations, and the close-up camera work seem designed to confound our idea of how effects-heavy fantasies are supposed to look, and it makes the illusion almost imperceptible.

This also extends to the Things, who are a triumph of suit acting, CGI facial animation, and voice acting, with some puppetry to assist. The Jim Henson Creature Shop was heavily involved in turning Sendak’s drawings into three dimensional beings, and that outfit’s trademark attention to personality and physicality shines through. It’s hard to say where “special effects” stop and acting and direction begin; the entire work is all of a piece.

And we cannot but love the creatures. As mentioned above, they may stand in for shards of Max’s personality, but they’re no less three-dimensional for it. Gandolfini’s Carol is both a father figure and a lost child, alternately a gentle soul and the most dangerous of the beasts; whatever he is, he’s almost instantly lovable, and thinking about some of the more wrenching moments makes my eyes just a little misty. Yes, there’s a bit more angst than we’re used to, and we may think of that sort of thing outside a child’s conception, but Max isn’t every child, and the conflicts the beasts have seem natural.

The entire film feels organic, just like the tree-branch structures they build; there’s a certain structural logic underneath all the rough bits, but the roughness has the reality of the stories kids themselves dream up (as Max does in an early scene.) Every scene is the most important one at that particular time, and we don’t have the reassurance of knowing that things will work according to a screenwriter’s schematic.

Inevitably it would take a lot of invention and elaboration to turn Sendak’s simple picture book into a full-length feature, and it’s not quite the same story. But independent of fidelity to the source, or whatever the proper demographic is, or whether it’s just self-indulgence, this is an astonishing film. It is a work of visual and visceral art, and in the end, as someone who loves film, that’s the important thing. Sad, cathartic, a powerful howl to clear the air, WHERE THE WILD THINGS is unforgettable.

(P.S. I must apologize for being unable to credit the suit performers, who are not listed on the film’s IMDB page despite having their names in the end cast roll. They are as important as the voice actors when it comes to bringing the Wild Things to life.)

Based on the book by Maurice Sendak
Screenplay by Spike Jonze & Dave Eggers
Directed by Spike Jonze

Grade: A

No comments: