Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

Posted by on Dec 18, 2011 in Just My Imagination | 0 comments

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Disclaimer: Like a traumatizing childhood, this has some fairly scary moments.

Derived from what is arguably the greatest children’s picture book in history, Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are was rumored for cinematic adaptation for a few decades (Disney was even attached in the 80s and John Lasseter did the early test work) before Sendak himself approached Spike Jonze. Here is a visionary music video director who turned to indie pictures in time for Charlie Kaufman hits like Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, altogether tallying quite a following. As such, the film came out in the summer of 2009 with huge expectations, especially from the twenty- and thirtysomethings set who got giddy at the indie connections of Jonze and Karen O (the Yeah Yeah Yeahs singer who did the soundtrack). But it met mixed reviews from its target audience and many critics, and wasn’t talked about much after that. I wasn’t shocked by that reaction, given the open-endedness of the book, but I’m at the same time saddened because this is a film that deserves a second chance, at the very least because there are very few like it.

The 10-sentence book is essentially plotless and more notable for its illustrations, and this film gives it unexpected depth compared to its eight-minute animated short from the 70s. This is a very blunt examination of a delicate time in childhood. Young Max (Max Records) runs from a family life he feels disconnected with – his parents are divorced, mom (Catherine Keener) is dating and overworked, dad is absent, and his sister (Pepita Emmerichs) is a selfish teen – hoping to join a less complicated group that basically appears to be an impulsive playgroup (smarty pants types refer to the book’s title/protagonist/subject matter as an amalgamation of the Freudian id). But he finds out that this life – even in dream – is just as complicated and emotionally demanding.

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Jonze has repeatedly said he wanted the film to give the experience of being 9 years old, and indeed the film is at times as terrifying, lonely, and confusing as the age it hopes to encapsulate. When we first meet the infamous companions, the 9-foot-tall creatures are quite frightening, albeit a little cuddly looking. One is passionately destructive. Several want to eat Max (and one actually swallows him). They nearly force him off a cliff. They clobber him with dirt clods. Hell, even when they have a sleeping pile we fear Max will get horribly crushed.

Despite these rough patches, the creatures (voiced by James Gandolfini, Catherine O’Hara, Forest Whitaker, Chris Cooper, and Paul Dano) accept Max into their clan and name him “king.” They do this under a utopian agreement that he makes a place where “only the things you want to happen will happen,” and they “keep out all the sadness.”  Yet even in the dream (or nightmare?) Max realizes it’s not possible, and part of his character growth is in accepting this. Max has to play parent to these giant children until they come to a realization of their own – there’s no such thing as a king that makes only good things happen and dreams are sometimes just dreams … they may not come true. Max, however, must come to grips with what is essentially the end of childhood and the beginning of adulthood. He must comprehend responsibilities and more stresses, and that his time spent imagining things can no longer suffice for his relationships. It’s rough stuff.

Not surprisingly, during the post-wildthings3production stages, the studio wanted to put a halt to the whole thing (a mere $75 million re-do), fearing that it wasn’t family friendly enough. So they sent him back to the drawing board to “friendly it up.” In case you haven’t been paying attention, this is not supposed to be a feel good movie. This is a movie about a very tough time in a child’s life. Certainly there are moments of dragging, but in terms of skimpy children’s literature made into movies this is some substantial stuff.

Plus Jonze made the bold – and correct – move in the creation of the creatures. This is the era of CGI, and he opted to call on Jim Henson Company to create 8-foot-tall costumes for actors to portray the creatures. These are “real, tangible” creatures to be scared of, not just animated textureless video game characters.

Viewers and critics can hate on the movie all they want, because I’m reminded that when Sendak’s book first came out it was banned in libraries and slammed in reviews. It took a few years for it to sink in and grow on people. And though I’m not expecting this film to gain anywhere near the following or acclaim of the book, I find there exists a raw beauty in its simplicity that not all adults will appreciate and not all kids will connect with – just the ones like Max. But maybe I can’t be trusted on this; I’m one of them.

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