Not So Wild About Wild Things: Why Spike Jonze’s Where The Wild Things Are Doesn’t Work
Where The Wild Things Are, Spike Jonze’s interpretation of Maurice Sendak’s children’s book by the same name, begins and ends with a mighty yawp. More than bookends, these animalistic calls are the picture’s chief metaphors. And yet, unfortunately, Where The Wild Things Are never amounts to much more than all this noise.
“Unfortunately” for a number of reasons:
The film has the rare and essential approval of the book’s author, Maurice Sendak. Not only has Sendak given the film his thumbs up, he went on camera to do, as part of the film’s promotional campaign. (http://www.apple.com/trailers/wb/wherethewildthingsare/)
We all loved the book; many of us feel as if this story is singularly special to our childhoods – the sentimentality we have for the story will cause many fans to defend this interpretation to the death.
The film is gorgeous, well acted, and a vivid experiment in staging and costume, for which Jonze, and his production team, should be applauded
All of this being said, the movie is a bore. Unsatisfying, and plodding, it ultimately doesn’t master its greatest challenge: how to turn a 48-page children’s book, with few lines of text, into a 90-minute picture.
Where The Wild Things Are follows the book’s broad strokes (angsty Max defies his mother, gets sent to bed without dinner, drifts off into an imaginary world inhabited by violent but friendly monsters, becomes their king, engages in a wild rumpus, returns home to mom and dinner). And yet the success of Sendak’s surreal tale was that it captured something essential about childhood, alienation, rebellion and the imagination – triumphs that, for then most part, have not translated to the film version.
To keep us in our seats, Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers have to make us care for Max and his monsters, and with the help of deft voice performances from James Gandolfini, Catherine O’Hara, Forest Whitaker, and especially Paul Dano, they nearly succeed. The writer and director just miss their mark, but it’s a William Tell-ish oopsie, and the results are dire. In terms of his characters, nothing much happens; no one grows. These monsters aren’t real to us, and it had nothing to do with their costumes or CGI.
The land Max discovers is rife with disharmony, and in attempting to repair it, the boy becomes a sort of Christ. But his mission is unclear, as are the roots of the Wild Things’ strife, and – if the consistent phone checking throughout the theater was any indication – we remain completely ambivalent to this world’s fate, and that of its inhabitants.
The brightest spots here are Max Records, in the role of Max, a beautiful and mature performer, and the near-perfect soundtrack provided by Karen O (If you, like me, were gripped by the rambunctious Arcade Fire-laden trailer, you’ll be both disappointed and pleased with the music, which is appropriate to a film that grinds along, as opposed to motoring).
In interviews Jonze has said that he had not made a film for children, but a film about childhood. This is unfortunate, considering that only a childish audience will be moved by what’s on screen.
This is one of those rare movies where the making-of seems more interesting than the film itself. With great care, $100 million dollars, and his wicked imagination, Jonze has created a remarkable and sumptuous world for Max and his friends to play in – and play they do. The playing is, in fact, endless. Please: let the wild rumpus end.
Jonze was commended by one journalist for taking such a “risk” with this film, but I wonder if the riskier notion would have been to make a short film, or an extended music video; maybe the more interesting risk is in trying to tailor the perfect suit, and not trying to pass off one of your dad’s as your own. If Jonze and Eggers couldn’t make this work, it’s doubtful anyone could, but that doesn’t mean that they had to try.
Furthermore, with the amount of interpretation inherent in such an endeavor, I wonder why Jonze and Eggers would not permit themselves more elasticity with the narrative. Why does Max have to stay in the land of the Wild Things? Why can’t the plot take us back and forth from that imaginary place to the more emotionally engaging real world of Max’s suburban family?
When Criterion releases the Spike Jonze collection in whatever medium has rendered DVDs hopelessly anachronistic, Where The Wild Things will be seen as the groovy oddity that will help complete the oeuvre, and may even come to be its standout, like Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. But as a stand alone film, while sometimes delightful, and an achievement in special effects and staging, the impression it leaves is lackluster – less of a yawp than a yawn.
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