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Josh Reviews Where The Wild Things Are!

October 19th, 2009
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I’ve been reading about Spike Jonze’s adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s deservedly beloved children’s book Where The Wild Things Are for a long time — years, now — and I am so thrilled to be able to report that the finished film which has finally been unveiled for the world to see is every bit as wonderful as I could have hoped.

Quite a lot has been written about this film’s torturous path to the big screen.  A few weeks ago I posted a link to this lengthy piece from the New York Times that charted the almost decade-long journey of Mr. Jonze to bring this film to life.  I remember reading the post from CHUD (Cinematic Happenings Under development) that the Times article refers to in its opening paragraph.  Click here to read that article, from February 20, 2008, in which Devin Farici broke the story that executives at Warner Brothers and Legendary Pictures were seriously considering abandoning Mr. Jonze’s version and entirely reshooting the film.

Thank the movie gods that that moment of crisis for the film came and went, and Mr. Jonze was able to bring his vision to completion.

The result is a delightfully unique, idiosyncratic film, truly unlike any other childrens book adaptation I have ever seen.

The film is enormously epic, a visual feast, but it is also astonishingly intimate.  Right from the very beginning (with the wonderfully messed-with opening titles which lead into Max’s wild rumpus with his dog), Mr. Jonze puts the viewers right in the face, and the mind, of young Max.  Max (played by Max Records) is clearly a very imaginative, creative little boy.  He also seems to be extraordinary lonely and, like any nine-year-old who doesn’t yet know how to express all of the feelings roiling around inside of him, he is prone to terrible outbursts.

This early, pre-Wild Things section of the film is an intriguing — and very, very clever — elaboration upon Mr. Sendak’s original book.  In Tim Burton’s film version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, he added a flashback that fleshed out Willy Wonka’s backstory (a sad childhood with his terrible father) that I felt was ridiculous and completely out of place.  But these early scenes with Max, in which we get to know him and understand his situation and why he feels the way he does, are wonderful and, I would argue, totally critical to the film’s success.  We need to understand who Max is, and why he is ultimately driven to run away from his family and escape (for a time) into fantasy.

What makes this early section of the film work, is Mr. Jonze (and co-screenwriter Dave Eggers)’s care to avoid any sort of schmalty manipulation of the audience.  These early scenes perfectly capture the well-known story-telling dictum of “show don’t tell.”  There are no voice-overs or lengthy speeches to explain everything to us; there are no flashbacks, and frankly, there is no exposition whatsoever.  Instead we are able to learn everything we need to know from a series of sad vignettes that we see unfold as we watch a tough afternoon and evening in the life of young Max.

These early sequences are enhanced by a wonderful group of actors, such as Catherine Keener and the blink-and-you’ll-miss-him Mark Ruffalo, who inhabit this look into Max’s home life.  But things begin and end with the amazing Max Records as Max.  It seems to me that child actors rise or fall based on the skill of the director working with them (let’s just say that I don’t fully blame Jake Llyod for his terrible performance as young Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars: Episode I), so I think Mr. Jonze and young Mr. Records should share equal credit for the amazing work on display here.  Suffice it to say, Max’s performance is astounding.  He is able to bring vibrant, sometimes painful life to this young boy who, unlike many movie kids, behaves and more importantly THINKS like a nine-year-old boy really would.

I mentioned above that, right from the beginning, Spike Jonze is able to put the audience right up into Max’s face.  There’s some incredible hand-held camera-work to witness here that allows us to tumble along with Max as he runs and jumps and yells when he is hyper or angry, and Mr. Jonze also displays a fearlessness in putting the camera right up in Max’s face during the still moments, so we can see in his face and in his eyes how he is processing and reacting to all that is happening around him.

I can’t believe how many paragraphs I have already written in this review, and I haven’t even mentioned the extraordinary achievement of how the Wild Things have been brought to life.  Amazing, wonderful, astounding — descriptive words fail me!!  Devin Farici’s post on CHUD mentions that one of the major problems facing the film, back in 2008, was that they had filmed everything live-action with Max and actors in enormous suits (created by the Jim Henson creature shop) with the intention of using CGI to enhance the expressionism of the creatures’ faces, but that that was proving to be fiendishly difficult (and expensive!).

I’m not sure if Mr. Jonze and his effects artists came up with new technical ways to ease the challenges facing them, or if they just buckled down and carried out the tough work, but either way the result is astounding.  First of all, the design of the creatures is amazing — they really look like Maurice Sendak’s drawings brought to three-dimensional life!  The highest compliment I can pay the designers is that the Wild Things look exactly the way I had always imagined them.  And while I am not certain precisely how the final effects were ultimately achieved, the blend of CGI and live-action works marvelously well.  It’s a powerful testament to the skill and artistry involved that, watching the film unfold, I had no clue as to what was CGI enhancement and what was just the original Henson suits.  The creatures look alive — and more than that, they look and feel REAL.  There wasn’t a single moment when I found myself drawn out of the film by thinking “oh, that’s clearly a CGI shot.”  (There were a few moments, when the creatures were jumping around, that looked pretty clearly like wire work, but I didn’t mind.  There’s something so great about seeing some old-fashioned wire-work in a movie these days!)  And the environment in which the Wild Things live and run and play doesn’t feel like some otherworldy, created-in-a-computer place — it looks and feels just like real rocks and real forests and real sand dunes (which of course it is).

I also found myself entranced by the expressive eyes of the Wild Things.  Again, I’m not sure when I was watching CGI and when I wasn’t, but the finished effects are just wonderful.  The final ingredient, of course, is the voices.  James Gandolfini is perfect as Carol, the Wild Thing who embodies Max’s untrammelled emotions, and his tendency towards expressing his feelings of sadness and loneliness through destructive action.  He is heartbreakingly tender and also very, very dangerous.  As I was watching the film, I immediately recognized Catherine O’Hara’s voice as the dour Wild Thing Judith, but it wasn’t until the closing credits that I realized that Forest Whitaker and Chris Cooper were two of the other voices, all of whom are terrific.

Spike Jonze has said that he felt he cracked the script of Where The Wild Things Are when he came upon the idea of having each Wild Thing express a different aspect of Max’s personality and emotions.  As with everything in the film, this is skillfully done.  Jonze’s approach to the Wild Things’ personalities  (along with the very specific, different designs of each creature) is effective in giving each creature a distinct identity in the film.  (No Transformers-like problem telling the characters apart to be found here!)  And in this aspect of the film, too, Jonze and his team stick to the dictum of “show don’t tell.”  There’s no scene where someone explains to the audience “You see?  Each creature is a different aspect of Max’s personality and emotions!”  No, the filmmakers trust that we’ll figure this out on our own, as the film unfolds.

I’ve been writing for a while now, and I haven’t even scratched the surfaces of the film’s pleasures.  (Like the marvelous score!!  I hope that someone will write a detailed look at how the film’s music was created, because I’d love to know more.)  As I sit now and reflect on the film that I saw, I keep thinking of other little moments and details that I really loved.

In the 2008 CHUD article mentioned at the top of this piece, Devin wrote that the studio executives were worried because they found this adaptation of a childrens book to be “too weird” and “too scary.”  Well, the finished film is indeed scary in parts, and it is also thoroughly weird.  So those executives were right on the money in their assessments.  But what made them sweat was exactly what, to me, makes this film so wonderful.

This is not a film for everyone.  It is DEFINITELY not for little kids, and I can see where some might find it boring.  (Jonze & Eggers’ refusal to fall into any typical movie narratives — character A does X and then learns a clear lesson — means that, for some lengthy stretches during the film, there isn’t too much that actually HAPPENS.)  Of the friends that I went to see this film with this weekend, only one of the three of us (me!) seemed to really like it.  But judging from the reviews, and from my own reaction, this seems to be a film where the people who like it REALLY REALLY LOVE IT.

If you’re a fan of intelligent, adult movie-making, do yourself a favor and go watch the film and see for yourself.

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