Movie Review: Odd and lovely ‘Wild Things’

29 Oct

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cinemagrade A+Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are is a strange and wonderful creation, like the book that inspired it. I can understand, however, if many are disappointed by it or don’t care for it at all. Jonze and scriptwriter Dave Eggers have taken the 9 page, 9 sentence Maurice Sendak book about a little boy who retreats into his imagination and transformed it into a 90 minute film about the complex emotions and erratic feelings that drive our early childhood.

It sounds like a disaster, but it ends up being not at all what I was expecting. There is an untamed and intoxicating sense of fantasy and understated realism at work in Wild Things that will ensure it a respected position in the pantheon of truly great family films. Beloved classics like Time Bandits and The Wizard of Oz also puzzled audiences upon their release, but look how they turned out.

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As most probably did, I happened upon Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are in the 1st grade when I found it wedged on a shelf in the school library. I was reading alot higher than the book’s level by that point, but the sumptious color illustrations of monsters running about with a boy in a wolf costume instantly hooked me. That first copy, smelling of old glue with jelly stains on the backsides of the pages, was transporting and I can still vividly remember turning through it for the first time. My guess is that Jonze and Eggers might have similar memories–if not for Wild Things then some long-ago childhood fragment–and they press them into this film version as one would press leaves into an album.

In fact, that’s probably the reason Wild Things manages to transcend the trap of picture book adaptations. It isn’t trying to recreate the experience of the book or capture precisly the mindset of Sendak’s slender tale. Instead, Jonze and Eggers make a movie about what being a child feels like and their version uses the hindsight of adulthood to remember what made the book so special to us back then. As a child, I always found myself stuck when the wild things cry “Don’t go! We’ll eat you up! We love you so!” I had no idea how one was supposed to read that line out-loud. When the wild thing K.W. says it to Max in the movie,  it was like a lightbulb going off in my brain. Suddenly, a grade-school  kid’s book gained new levels of depth 25 some odd years later. The film is full of revelatory moments like this; moments that will be meaningful for some and baffling for others.

where-the-wild-things-are3Wild Things begins with young Max (Max Records) chasing the family dog down the stairs in his wolf costume and it’s one of the most aggressive and disorienting openings to a film I can remember. The camera-work is erratic and violent, with Max charging towards to the viewer, wrestling the pet to the ground and then smashing down each step, fork raised above his head like Neptune’s trident. The home-life of Max is made up of alot of moments like this. He builds a snow fort and his sister’s friends trash it. When she doesn’t defend him, he’s hurt and breaks a trinket he made for her, regretfully collecting the pieces when his temper has subsided. His mother (Catherine Keener) brings home a guy(Mark Ruffalo)–who seems nice but this doesn’t matter to an 8 yr old who only sees an intruder–and Max lashes out, biting his mother and running away.

As in the book Max sails a small ship to an island inhabited by the Wild Things, which are visualized here by the Jim Henson Creature Shop. They look more or less as I remember with one significant distinction. Their features are more human and expressive and looking into their eyes reveals secrets, regrets, sadness and longing. It sounds odd to say, but the beasties are the emotional core of the movie and they represent the burgeoning and warring facets of Max’s adolescence.

where-wild-things-are-treeCarroll(James Gandolfini), the leader, is an emotionally fragile grouch who yearns to keep his family together but only reacts with anger when it is threatened. The rest–Ira, Judith, Alexander, KW, and Douglas–all embody some specific trait or insecurity that relates to Max’s complicated feelings back at home. Alex doesn’t think anyone listens to him and he’s right, Judith is a manic bully that thinks someone shouldn’t protest if you proclaim you want to eat them. Douglas is the peacemaker, occassionally suffering for his efforts and KW maternally protects Max, even to the point of swallowing him. There is a silent and somber Bull whose shyness is overcome only once to ask Max “Will you say good things about us to everyone?” And then there’s Ira, who puts the holes in the trees.  

Great pains and effort have been taken in making the world that Max and the Wild Things inhabit feel real. Instead of a CGI-soaked dreamscape or an impressionistic artifice like the fantasies of Burton or Gilliam, Jonze places his creatures in a landscape of dirt, rock, forests and panoramic deserts that all look like actual places. There is a grainy naturalism to the photography, as if it had been directed by Terrence Malick back in the 70s. The Wild Things themselves have emotive faces but their bodies are obviously suits that give them a weight and physical reality. Max Records is one of the most believable children I’ve seen on film. He behaves as I expect an 8 yr old would and he follows the cues of the picture without going out of character. The voicework on the Wild Things is well done, and the casting is right on target.

It is worth noting that despite talk to the contrary, Where the Wild Things Are is indeed a family film and one children can enjoy. The brilliance of it is that it will be accepted by both audiences in two completely different ways. Adults will note the authenticity of the emotions that Max struggles with as he learns that being part of a family is hard and that it’s still important to love others even when they aren’t immediately loving you as you want. Kids will dig the Wild Rumpus and the way the Things interact with one another.  At the end of the day, Max figures out it’s time to go home and get his dinner. Kids will get that. Their parents will sympathize with the kindness and loving exasperation in his mother’s eyes when he finally arrives. What a great movie.

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9 Responses to “Movie Review: Odd and lovely ‘Wild Things’”

  1. Xiphos October 29, 2009 at 2:54 pm #

    I’m curious to see this movie. I’ll probably catch it in a few weeks when I get home. I wonder which side of the divide I’ll come down on.

  2. Xiphos October 29, 2009 at 3:00 pm #

    Also becasue I forgot. The minimal use of CGI is a bonus and I like that they used costumes becasue of the ‘heft” factor you mentioned. I also appreciate that they set the movie in a real physical universe instead of a fantasical head trip kind of place.

    I wonder why the studio released it so far from Thanksgiving? It seems that WTWTA should be released betweened Thanksgiving and Chritmas.

  3. Bartleby October 29, 2009 at 3:04 pm #

    My guess it to avoid having it crushed by all of the bigger studio films being released. It has done well for itself,but I think they always knew they had a specialized studio item so instead of facing it off with some Disney bit or New Moon or Avatar they gave it some breathing room in October, and ultimately, that was probably the right choice. I think WT will keep hanging in there.

  4. Xiphos October 29, 2009 at 3:10 pm #

    yeah that makes a whole lot of sense. Funny thing is I want to see this more then I want to see Avatar.

  5. goregirl October 30, 2009 at 12:36 pm #

    I can’t imagine a Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers collaboration based on one of my favorite childhood books possibly being bad. I really can’t wait to see this one! Great review!

  6. Droid November 3, 2009 at 9:56 am #

    I want to see this! Comes out December 11 here. Then is see Avatar on December 17. Huzzah! A merry christmas for me!!!

  7. Bartleby November 3, 2009 at 9:59 am #

    Those varying release dates always get me. If it’s any consolation, Im dying to see Parnassus, and we don’t get that here til Dec 25th.

  8. Adrienna November 21, 2009 at 3:49 am #

    Thank you for your well written review of the Wild Things. I loved this movie, but it wasn’t for the reasons I thought I would. I had expected to have some warm nostalgic feeling of some ideal of what childhood was, and instead I was thrust into the emotional memory of what childhood really felt like. It was surreal, and sometimes uncomfortable, evoking feelings I hadn’t touched on in years, and over all wonderful, and oddly real while being fantastic. In fact, the scene with the snow house that was destroyed- just the very way it was shot- immediately I was transported to a time when something similar happened to me, when I was around the same age, and I had a physical reaction to the movie. A wave of all of these feelings washed over me: the humiliation, the isolation, the feeling of betrayal, and eventual anger, and although small in retrospect, it was huge at that age. That is a powerful movie. I’m very happy Jonze and Eggers are the ones who made it.

  9. 366weirdmovies December 11, 2009 at 7:14 pm #

    I liked the film too, but obviously not as much as you. It’s on the borderline of making my top 10 films of the year. I would give it 4 out of 5 stars.

    I disagree that children will love this movie, based on personal experience of taking a 9 and 11 year old boy to see it. Both were bored; not enough action. I suppose kids of different ages and genders may react differently, though.

    One thing I noticed but didn’t have much time to cover in my own capsule review was all the womb imagery in the film. There’s the ice tunnel Max builds for himself; the “big pile” he sleeps in that looks like a furry uterus; and, of course, when he’s swallowed into KW’s gullet and spit back out, it looks like a reverse birthing scene. I guess Max is supposed to be at that age where he remembers the womb well enough that he fantasizes about being able to return there. Heck, I’M still at that age.

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