Saturday, December 12, 2009

A Quick Word... On 'Where The Wild Things Are'

Movie Review:
Where The Wild Things Are (2009)
Dir. Spike Jonze

In 1963 Maurice Sendak wrote what began as a sleeper hit, and later became one of the most unprecendentedly popular children's books of all-time. His book, Where The Wild Things Are was a huge success, not least of all because it so simply captured the childhood dream of escape. It was also an incredibly loosely told story however, which led to some skepticism - if from no-one else then me - that a film version would ever work.

There have been several attempts to fashion a Wild Things movie. A screen test for a Disney animated version still exists, and seems to be the inspiration for the opening scene of this latest version. Finally, after years in development hell and a few more years than average in actual production, Where The Wild Things Are has finally reached release.

The script is co-written by Dave Eggers, responsible for the hugely popular A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius, and director Spike Jonze. Jonze has only two other films in his showcase: Being John Malkovich, and Adaptation. Both movies are incredible pieces of work, pushing all the norms of Hollywood aside, to create two of the most truly original pieces of cinema ever made. However, both those movies were written by the legendary Charlie Kaufman, and it remained to be seen whether Jonze could truly make a movie of originality on his own, or whether his work was hinged to Kaufman's scripts, which have had success with almost every director who's touched them.

The answer is a staggering 'YES'. From the moment Wild Things opens, it punches you square in the face with an astoundingly well crafted range of emotions and feelings, so that you find yourself lost in the whirlwind of Max's head. When he rages at his sister and her friends and vents his anger in her room, when he cowers as the wild things leer over him with their threats, when he can't make the inhabitatnts of his new world as happy as he wants to be able to, you're stuck with him for the whole journey, and it's impossible for anyone with a modicum of empathy inside them not to get caught up in it.

The wild things are wild. In our saccharin Disney-flick-dominated world, the large and cuddly are also always sweet underneath. In Wild Things the creatures are lovable but dark; tortured by their own insecurities. It has been speculated by reviewers that they represent members of Max's family, I see it as far more likely that they represent different sides of his personality, each one embodying a different element of the things that make up his 'wild' side: be they fear, anger, rejection, or a need to be alone. They are scary at times, but there is no doubt they are also wonderful, and you will fall in love with them just as Max does.

Aesthetically, it's the best film Jonze has made. The landscapes are breathtaking, every hair on the wild things moves in just the right way, and the subtle artistic references to the book are perfectly placed. Certain motifs are noticable running throughout the movie, even in the first viewing, but more will no doubt reveal themselves later.

Max Records gives a performance with skill years beyond his age, and James Gandolfini really shows his skills by playing such a different character to his iconic role in The Sopranos. The soundtrack is tunefully put together by Karen O' of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and a choir of kids, yet occasionally rings with howls and yelps, perfect for capturing Max's headspace.

Where The Wild Things Are is best described as a fantasy about the real world. It captures the innocence and anger of youth, and also the need to escape. Anyone who is a child, or ever was one, will surely find something in Max that they can grip on to. Oddly, some of the most impacting scenes in the film are also the most simple - Max telling a story from under the table to his disheartened mother, or his return home at the end of the film. The wild things aren't redundant in this sense, but serve instead to show through much bigger means, the importance of the little things in Max's life.

Where The Wild Things isn't really a kids movie, though I see no reason why kids wouldn't enjoy it unless they are easily freaked. Instead, I see it as much more like Pan's Labyrinth, and arguably equal to it. It's a story about children, but more for adults - those who grew up with the book, rather than those who are yet to read it. And truly, so much effort has gone into adapting Sendak's work, the result trumps the original significantly. Those who have read and loved the original story will remain enthralled, those who haven't will no doubt still be entertained, and anyone with a heart may find that - like me - even as the cinema doors close, a small part of it will haunt them for hours afterwards, calling them back, to where the wild things are...

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