Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are

There are so many places where Spike Jonze's third feature Where the Wild Things Are could go wrong. If I told you that the first ten minutes consisted of the director setting up its protagonist as a child in a broken home, neglected by a divorced mother trying to keep her job to continue to support her children, you'd probably -- Hey, come back! Let me finish. What on paper sounds like the beginnings of some half-assed Sundance feature becomes, under Jonze's wondrous direction and Dave Eggers' celebration of pre-pubescent angst, one of the finer films of the year and a technical marvel.

Jonze has a genuine find in Max Records, who plays the young hero Max. Imaginative but petulant, Max cannot connect with either his teenage sister nor his mom, and when mom invites a boyfriend over, an already cheesed Max acts out and ultimately runs away. Suddenly, he finds a sailboat that looks suspiciously like a small model he made for a miniature world in his bedroom, and sails until he reaches an island inhabited by huge monsters. Eggers and Jonze don't waste time in these first 15 minutes: as soon as he stumbles across the monsters, locked in the middle of some sort of argument, Max proudly strides in the middle of them and avoids being eaten by declaring himself their king.

Now that he's established the plot, Jonze slows the proceedings down and begins to explore this strange little world and its characters. Each of the monsters reflects a certain aspect of pre-teen moods: Alexander (voiced by Paul Dano), a goat-like beast, is timid and largely unheeded despite his keen observations; Judith (Catherine O'Hara) has the general snottiness and tactlessness of an impish child. Carol (James Gandolfini), the most prominent of the wild things, comes closest to Max's full range of emotions; Carol is the first to accept Max into the group, and he places all of his hopes on Max to keep the splintering wild things together.

Jonze has proven his visual acuity with his music videos as well as, to a more formal extent, his work directing his previous two features, both of which nicely juggled believable scenarios and set design with the skewed vision of Charlie Kaufman. Here, he at last unleashes the full range of his visual skill. The sharp, stripped branches jutting out from trees, and the houses and forts made from those sticks, reflect the characters' feelings of angst and loneliness, and one wonders how these large, hollow balls offer any sort of warmth or comfort to its residents. In one lovely segment, the wild things all pile on one another and Max, who is so dwarfed by this giant fur dome that he can wander freely in the middle of his new buddies.

I cannot honestly say, however, how well children might respond to this adaptation of a beloved children's book. Maurice Sendak's short story consisted of only 10 sentences and communicated the rest through illustrations, leaving a lot of space for Jonze and Eggers to fill. The script contains a number of fantastically funny moments -- many of them involving Alexander's quiet protests -- but for the most part the two focus on the sadder side of youth: their Max doesn't rebel because of unrestrained adolescent impudence but because he feels unloved and unwanted. Jonze keeps this idea grounded by presenting his mother's neglect without words and also inserting a number of shots that clearly demonstrate people caring for Max to prove that some of his feelings are hyperbolic and selfish. The mixture allows him to present Max both as a typical brat, but one with some pathos that never allows him to drift into the extremities of either unlikability or transparently sympathetic. The wild things also have their issues, and I found myself caring as much about whether this weird family stayed together as Max and his problems.

Interestingly, one segment of the film draws not from Sendak but Antoine de Sant-Exupéry and his classic Le Petit Prince: as Max and Carol wander through a desert (itself a clue to the scene's influence), Max relays something his science teacher told him earlier, that the sun would die one day. With only a moment's pause, Carol happily shuns such thoughts. "You're the king, and I'm big!" he says, "How could guys like us worry about a tiny little thing like the sun?" For all the film's dark themes of alienation and isolation, that one line is like a Beatles song in prose: I defy it not to bring a little cheer to people.

Most striking about the film, however, is the bizarre and magnificent design of the wild things. A combination of CGI and traditional puppetry and animatronics, the monsters can tread the line between purely fantastical (their heads are wider than their shoulders) and the realism that comes from an actual object being in the scene with the human actors. Often these creatures can be frightening, but I found myself strangely wishing to hug one of them, just one (probably not Judith).

Sadly, the film occasionally falters, such as its large storyline concerning a romance between the petulant and childlike Carol and the more reasonable KW (Lauren Ambrose), which drifts in and out of being interesting and grinds the picture to a halt when it isn't, as well as the ending, which to be fair couldn't really drawn upon Sendak's lack of resolution but fails to effectively conclude the story in its own way. These are minor quibbles, however, in the face of this charming but introspective young adult -- that's likely the area the film should be placed in, irrespective of the book -- feature that celebrates and contemplates the unrefined emotion of youth in equal measure. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go try to start up a dirt clod fight.

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