Sunday, November 1, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are (2009) A Film by Spike Jonze

Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, a succinct, poetic tale of a young boy's imaginative escape from reality, is one of the literary pinnacles of my youth. It is the kind of perfect little book that succeeds on all fronts; its eloquent tableau illustrations please the eye and tell as much if not more of the story than the words do, and its brevity only enhances the potency of its ambiguous but acute childhood themes. Understandably, Spike Jonze's recent film adaption of it has elicited great bursts of nostalgia from a 16-21 year-old target audience. Just take a trip down to Urban Outfitters, where Wild Things merchandise has infiltrated, and you'll know what I mean. In a nutshell, there's a lot riding on the shoulders of Jonze's film. Thankfully, Jonze appears to have lovingly adapted his source, packing a great deal of sentimentality into his own elongation of it, suggesting that he's clearly as reverent as we are. Jonze's own radically different quirkiness comes to the fore however, eventually suffocating most of the genuine emotion he was shooting for.

The film kicks off promisingly though. An abrasive cut jars us out of an opening musical cue (the first in a soundtrack written entirely by Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs) and into Max's (Max Records) aggressive sprawl down the stairs to chase his dog. The frenetic bound of the camera introduces the film's dynamic sense of physicality and hyperactive movement to compliment Max's shifty thoughts. Then there is a scene that manages to delicately balance the cuteness of childhood and the harshness that breaches it in a way that is believable. Max is playing out by the street in his snowy neighborhood, fiddling with snowballs in a primitive fort. He then sees his older sister leave the house with some friends and slyly decides to attack them from behind a fence. The bigger boys with her fight back and overstep their boundaries by body-slamming Max who is hiding within his fort. The boys awkwardly and insincerely apologize. All is fun and games until someone gets hurt.

In this instance, Jonze effectively brings to life this cliche. Otherwise, it is not very often that Where the Wild Things Are achieves this universal poignancy. The impulse of self-conscious cuteness progressively impedes on the action; Jonze and screenwriting partner Dave Eggers sugar coat an especially heartstring-tugging scene following the snowball episode when Max tells his mother a story from his dreams about vampires. The film then overplays the book's admirably restrained advance into Max's fantasies, substituting a melodramatic sprint to a nearby boat on the water for the transformation of room to jungle. Once Max does reach the island where the wild things are, he witnesses a group of bizarre creatures burning sticks in the woods for fun. Immediately there is a disunity between the book and the film that is somewhat grating: the wild things are voiced as if in a petty conniption fit with each other by James Gandolfini, Paul Dano, Catherine O'Hara, and Forest Whitaker, among others. Their mystery in the book is replaced by doleful ranting about loneliness.

Max, out of self-defense against being eaten, optimistically claims himself to be their King. With it comes not just great fun with the wild things but also great responsibility. One of Jonze's mistakes here is providing Max with the ability to constantly sort out problems, albeit with some hesitance, and deliver a verbalized solution that hammers in a particular lesson of the film. He also frequently resorts to a pouty face when placed in a predicament, with O's music layering on thick the bathos. Moreover, Jonze's ideas for expanding the simplistic storyline are hit-or-miss. For a moment, the attempt to create a huge stick fortress to fulfill the head wild thing's dream boasts some terrific potential, a deviation that will end the sadness once and for all, but ultimately it turns into more quarreling. Not even the joy of creation can tame these wild things.

The building of the fortress also points towards something else that is partially lacking in the film; fantastical settings. If we are supposed to believe that the entire film stems from Max's creative mind, it is not only unconvincing that the wild things bicker like adults but also that the landscape they inhabit is decidedly bland. In Sendak's book, each image has a faintly distorted sense of scale, color, and texture. Nature is gentle but mystically stylized. Jonze's relentless use of Cassavetes-style camerawork only reinforces the disconnect between book and film. Sure, Jonze should be able to mold the story creatively to his own instincts, but not to the extent that he loses the exaggerated distinction between reality and fantasy. Where the Wild Things Are stumbles upon a striking image once in a while - a snowy night in the woods, Max and Carol trudging across the desert, Max lumbering underneath the empty teepee, the animatronics-made wild things in general - but Jonze does not let them hold the power. His direction does not match the enigmatic nature of his content, and it constitutes a fairly lackluster adaption stripped of emotional complexity.

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