Monday, September 17, 2012

Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

In 1963, Maurice Sendak released the Caldecott awarding winning children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are. While it is touted as being one of the best children’s books of all time, I feel that it is good, not great. Whatever your view of it is, it is a book abundant in pictures and minimal on words. The film adaptation of this book takes that modest book and transforms it into a visceral, poetic, fleshed out, and polarizing project.

The story begins with Max, a very imaginative young boy, who lives with his older sister and single mom. From the beginning, it is established that Max is forlorn, depressed, and mildly disturbed. Imagination is the gateway to his happiness. After Max acts out violently towards his mother (don’t worry, no one dies), Max runs away. He ends up at a pond where he finds a little boat. He gets on it and sails away to an island occupied by the Wild Things. The Wild Things don’t like the looks of Max until he convinces them that he was a king, to which they crown him their king and, as Max states, the wild rumpus starts.

An interesting thing about the Wild Things is that, let’s be honest, they are creepy. In fact, one flaw I have with the film can be found when Max first gets on the island and the Wild Things are suspicious about him. At one point, they all gang up on him and want to eat him, and the way they look and how it is handled is unrelentingly grim. Anyway, even though they look creepy, it’s what they say and do that makes them likable, minus the scene I mentioned. These weird-looking characters from the book have been turned into three-dimensional beings with personalities and genuine feelings.

Another thing I love about this film is how it hits all of the right nuances. The island is manic and yet it still sustains a sense of whimsicality. Like other exceptional films of the genre, it manages to precisely tackle two key elements: tragedy and comedy. What I adore about this film is that there is unpredictability in the sense that it is unknown whether a scene will go dramatic or funny. Even in a dramatic scene, they still throw in gently funny moments to keep us from going into a clinical depression. Also, if a character lies about who he is in a children’s film, you know you’re gonna see the “liar revealed” moment. However, when it happens, it hits all the right beats. Also, the ending. Just make sure you have a box of Kleenex with you. I didn’t cry, but I feel many of you will, so I jut wanted to prepare you. You’re welcome.

Max Records, who plays Max, is fantastic. I stated earlier how sad Max is and how he acts out violent towards his mother. Even though this makes him sound like a deplorable, creepy child, Max Records portrays him with such conviction and vulnerability that his actions seem almost forgivable. The filmmakers, also, hit the nail of the head with the voice casting. The voice talents include Lauren Ambrose, Catherine O’Hara, Chris Cooper, Forest Whitaker, and Paul Dano, who all infuse their roles with charm and heart.

Of course, the standout voice talent is James Gandolfini as Carol, the leader of the Wild Things. Everyone knows him as a tough Italian mobster in The Sopranos, but I believe he could have a career as a voice artist. He can, impeccably, go from charismatic to profound creepiness.

This has the feel of an independent film, but not the look. This movie is visually spectacular. For the Wild Things, a wide scope of visual techniques was used (CGI, costumes, and puppets) to bring them to life. They look so convincing that you don’t even know what visual technique they are using at the moment. I’d like to think that the mouth movements were CGI, the Wild Things, themselves, were costumes, and these two owls in the movie were puppets, but I’m still not sure. Not only are they convincing, but also they are detailed. When Max jumps on one of them, the fur and body moves exactly how it would in real life, to the point where I could feel them.

I refuse to believe that this film was shot on a soundstage. These sets are some of the most realistic in movie history. Although, to be honest, there were times in some of the dune scenes where I almost knew that it was a soundstage, but majority of it is authentic. But the forest! This was shot on a soundstage? Seriously?

There is one key element that makes this film work: restraint. Restraint encompasses this film. From the many subtle interactions, the visuals and creatures that aren’t shoved in your face, the leisurely pace that allows you to soak in the characters and atmosphere, the inconspicuous score (akin to Juno) by Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs that perfectly compliments every single, solitary scene and helps establish the mood, to the laid-back, crystal clear cinematography.

Spike Jonze may be the ideal person to handle this kind of project. This idiosyncratic director’s credits include Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. Hell, he even produced all of the Jackass films and its television show. Did I mention that this film is polarizing? 

While there will be people who adore this film, there will be that group who is unhappily overwhelmed by the depressing nature of the film. What Spike Jonze brings to this film is calculated intelligence. He knows that it would’ve been expected to make the film kiddish. He knows that it would’ve been expected to directly use CGI and heavily rely on pop cultural references. He knows that these issues are adult. He knows that there may be some kids who don’t get it and some adults that may be puzzled by it.

However, he doesn’t care. He didn’t want to patronize kids or insult their intelligence. He knows that when kids go to the movies, it should be a liberating experience and possibly a chance for kids to bond with adults. He didn’t conform to the typical standards of children’s films. He made the film he wanted to make. Once again, I understand that there will be some people who will be turned off by this film. As for me, I enjoyed every wild, funny, and dramatic moment of it.

RATING: Three and three-quarters stars out of four

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