Nov 1, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are

I went in with low expectations after reading some negative reviews. This movie blew me away. It moved me deeply. It is certainly one of the most original, unpredictable, unformulaic, gorgeous movies to come out of Hollywood in years.
I find it almost miraculous that Spike Jonze was able to deliver his vision in such a truthful, seemingly uncompromised way. Chapeau, chapeau, chapeau to him.
He and Dave Eggers expanded on the book by Maurice Sendak by giving characters to the Wild Things. It's a story about raw feelings. About feelings so painful, so intense, that they cannot be articulated except through wild actions, like monster tantrums. Hurt, jealousy, loneliness, pain, joy. How does a child deal with these feelings? How do adults cope? One may grow up, but the feelings are the same.
Although people complain that not much happens, I think a lot happens emotionally. Jonze's achievement is his masterful control of tone. There is gorgeous, insane energy in the wild actions of Max, a child bewildered by a broken home (not in the original source). And then there is a lovely, melancholy but mischievous feel to the place where the Wild Things are. I find it a fascinating interpretation true to the core of the Sendak story. Nothing sounds canned or clichéd.
When Max first finds them, The Wild Things are utterly bewildered, Big guy Carol is running around destroying things without quite knowing why (it's because of unrequited love). Max brings them a sense of purpose, some order and some lost joy. He does that by becoming their king and soon he learns that this degree of control requires responsibility and honesty.
Maurice Sendak made up one of the most brilliant and durable metaphors in children's literature. Our feelings are volatile creatures that behave in wild ways. But what fantastic creatures they are! They all sound reassuringly like neurotic New Yorkers and were made by the Jim Henson people with great fidelity to the original Sendak drawings. This is the opposite, for instance, of what happened to poor William Steig's Shrek, who was defanged of all his charm and transformed into plastic merchandising by a big studio.
The faces of the Wild Things are extraordinarily expressive, but what works like a charm are the actors who lend them their voices. I loved James Gandolfini as Carol. He has the voice of a lovable lug (one of the reasons he was so sexy in The Sopranos), and as Carol he brings out the sweetness and vulnerability in that warm, teddy bear voice of his. He was the only one I recognized off the bat, but the rest of the acting is extraordinary. Everybody's tone is just right, slightly off-kilter but emotionally true. Catherine O'Hara is a hoot as Judith (a shrew and a self described "downer"), Paul Dano, quietly tender as Alexander, who no one ever listens to; Chris Cooper, softly authoritative as Douglas, and Forest Whitaker, as Ira, a wild thing deeply in love with Judith, and even Lauren Ambrose as KW is spirited and lovely.
This is not a film for young children. It may be a film for children the same age as Max, the protagonist, who at the beginning seemed to me a little long in the tooth for such tantrums. But as he goes to where the wild things are, he becomes more like a child, more vulnerable and more powerful and he is more delightful. The kid is put through the wringer, like kids are when they feel any of those terrible things that Max feels, and the tone is dark but playful. I can totally understand Sendak's impatience with parents who complain about the movie's darkness. The story, and the film are about the hard truths of childhood. They are not a fantasy land for blissful escape. However, thinking of my young nephews, I'm not sure that they would not be scared by the chaotic strangeness inflicted on Max. I'm so curious to hear what Mini Enchiladito Number One would have to say about it (he is seven years old and crazy about movies).
But it is a wonderful film for adults, if you allow it to take you into its extraordinary realm of metaphorical feeling. It is more magical than anything I've seen in a long time.
The one thing that got on my nerves was the hipsterish music by Karen O. The score by Carter Burwell (this man can do no wrong in my book) is fine, but all those cloying, cutesy songs were a little bit too much for me, particularly when inserted into scenes where the characters were talking. The cinematography by Lance Acord is amazing, the landscapes and the creatures are amazing.
It is a deeply beautiful film.

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