Thursday, October 8, 2009

Movie Review: "Where the Wild Things Are"

Originally published in the Oct. 18 edition of The Source.
Anyone who was ever 9 years old will find something to love in the film adaptation of "Where the Wild Things Are."

Max (Max Records) is the product of a broken home; he watches his mother fret over finances and does what he can to cheer her up - it's painful to watch Mom worry. His active imagination comes to life in snow forts and rampages through the house with the dog; sometimes, such as when his older sister ignores him to go with her new, cooler friends, it forces him to lash out in anger. He loves snowball fights, but can break out in tears when the playing gets too intense.

The details are different for us all, but I'm sure every adult can identify at some point with the hero of Spike Jonze's adaptation of Maurice Sendak's beloved children's book. Jonze adds heart and insight to Sendak's nine-sentence story and refuses to pander to kids by inserting fart jokes, pop culture references and slapstick humor. He has created one of the most beautiful and sincere films about what it is like to be a child that I have ever seen.

The basic storyline of the film follows Sendak's short story, with Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers fleshing out Max's home life to include the distant sister and the mother (Catherine Keener), who has also just begun dating a new man (Mark Ruffalo). Jonze doesn't beat us over the head with these story points but presents them from Max's point of view; it's easy to see where his anger, loneliness and fear come from, particularly when Max encounters a school teacher who informs him that one day the sun will burn out. Max's hyper outbursts seem less the work of a precocious movie kid and more the genuine outworking of a confused, scared child. Who never retreated to a fantasy world as a child or lashed out at their parents when they felt ignored?

Max runs away from home one night and finds himself en route to a mysterious island where giant beasts live, who quickly make Max their king. These aren't friendly, cuddly creatures, at first. One, Carol (James Gandolfini) has thrown himself into and is destroying the village. The others are a mess of psychological issues, fearful, insecure and ready to run away. Jonze treats Sendak's creations not as marketing, Happy Meal-ready characters but as manifestations of Max's personality, personifying the emotions every child feels at one time or another.

For those who think those are deep waters for a kids' movie, you're right, but it's not much different than "The Wizard of Oz."Jonze, the director of "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation," might at first seem to be a bizarre choice for this material. Consider, however, that his previous films have dealt with the workings of the human mind, mixed with a dash of whimsy, and it might be easier to see what attracted him to this material.

Jonze is interested in recreating what it felt like to be 9 years old: the playfulness that easily turns into violence, the emotions that run out of control and can be soothed by adults, the fear of finding out for the first time that the world is dangerous and not everyone is on your side. I predict many kids will be caught up in the story and many other adults will be jarred by how closely it hits to home.Very little computer imagery is used in the film; it was shot on location in forests, deserts and around lakes; this is one of the most beautiful films to look at this year. The Wild Things themselves are actors in costumes supplied by the Jim Henson Company; only the faces are digitally altered. Jonze shoots most things with a handheld camera, tumbling alongside Max and the Wild Things as they careen through the woods or attack each other with dirt clods.

The result is a surprisingly intense and primal film that feels genuine from start to finish; Jonze's involvement in the television show "Jackass" may have actually been of benefit to the rough and tumble play between Max and the Wild Things. Some may feel the film gets too intense for smaller children, but I'd argue that children are tougher than we think. The greatest children's work has always had an edge to it, a sense of being scary and nearly out of control. Jonze's greatest feat is that he never once condescends to his audience, and instead shows a keen knowledge of what kids think and feel, and what their play is like.

All of this depends on the work of Records, who turns in one of the most genuine and nuanced child performances I've seen. Never once does the young actor seem to be saying things that are too smart or precious for a child to say; his emotions are genuine, his reactions just what we would expect. It's a confident and surprisingly layered performance for a child to give and Records provides the film with a beating heart.

There's not really a plot to speak of - Max is made king, he rules as best he can while keeping the secret that he's just a boy. But then again, childhood play had no real plot; we made up the stories each day as we went along and in retrospect, probably wrote in our own fears, insecurities, dreams and hopes. Jonze wisely casts actors, not stars, as the voices of the Wild Things, including Gandolfini, Chris Cooper, Forest Whitaker and Paul Dano. The result is believable characters, without the distractions that would be provided by stars like Seth Rogen or Jim Carrey, who would turn it into a joke fest and not the heartfelt work that Jonze has created, balancing joy and energy with sadness and fear - just like childhood.

As I write this review, it's been less than 24 hours since I saw the film and the one drawback of working on deadline is that I don't know that the film has had time to digest properly. I've told you what works and why, but I find myself affected by the film in ways I cannot yet articulate. And perhaps that's the biggest success of "Where the Wild Things Are." In a genre that is often home to junk food and studio trash, Spike Jonze has created a profound, primal reminder of what it is to be a child - fun, scary, lonely, sad and confusing. It's a beautiful and poetic reminder of that time in our lives when adventure was around the corner, the world was beginning to expand and life was wild.

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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.