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Visions of Childhood Angst: A Review of ‘Where the Wild Things Are’

October 22nd, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

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The Spike Jonze/Dave Eggers adaptation of Maurice Sendak‘s beloved children’s book, Where The Wild Things Are, is a ponderous, frenetic contraption of a film that just might leave kids with a pre-adolescent life crisis after it’s over. Wild Things has had a four year journey from page to screen and, unfortunately, it still doesn’t quite have all the kinks worked out. Jonze began shooting in 2006 and, in early 2008, around the same time that footage of the dailies was leaked, there were rumors of production troubles and that Warner Bros. executives weren’t happy with the finished product.

The studio allowed Jonze to continue working on it for another year, pouring in more money beyond the original $80 million budget. The extra time and budget seem to have been put into animating the faces of the monster puppets that were originally created in Jim Henson‘s creature shop. The CGI-rendered, wary, sad expressions of the wild things carry the film. Author and first time screenwriter, Eggers, has infused those scenes with a potent blend of bleak comedy and a childlike sensibility that, for the most part, never seems strained.

where-the-wild-things-arejpg-53d474838e787560_largeThe opening shots begin with a jolt of handheld camera movement as Max, played by newcomer Max Records, runs screaming down the stairs, at which point, there’s a freeze frame with the title. Regrettably, the scenes that follow don’t build on this momentum. Instead, they end up deflating the manic energy. Also, Jonze doesn’t do any favors to Catherine Keener, who plays Max’s mother. She’s given one too many worried close-ups. In fact, the camerawork is all in close-up until later in the film when there are some gorgeous landscape shots.

By the time the rollicking indie-rock score by Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs starts up, it feels like a warning to get ready for a sad, melancholy treatise on the wonderment of childhood, with all the excitement of a Master’s degree thesis. The biggest missed opportunity in the opening scenes is the decision by Jonze and Eggers to alter one of most evocative images in the book: when Max’s bedroom gradually transforms into the jungle where the wild things dwell. In this version, Max runs off into the woods and finds a canoe at the edge of a lake. He then sails off to the island of the wild things.

The change was made to evoke realism I suppose. But does this story really need realism? Eggers explained his reasoning for the change to the Chicago Tribune, saying, “That was the one thing that he (Maurice Sendak) really couldn’t believe we wanted to do, and he really fought it. He kept coming back to it.” I’m with Sendak on this one. The jungle transformation would have made for an awesome cinematic visual.

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Luckily, the movie picks up once Max lands on the island and meets the wild things. The plot embellishes on the outline given in the book, with Max getting mistaken for a king who possesses magical powers. The wild things are fascinating creatures with huge personalities–thanks in no small part to the stellar voice talent that includes James Gandolfini, Catherine O’Hara, Chris Cooper, Paul Dano, Lauren Ambrose and Forest Whitaker. At first, the monster’s squabbling is off-putting, but Eggers gives the characters a life of their own and they end up adding a layer of much-needed comic relief.

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The wild things are an angst-ridden bunch who are like stubborn kids one moment and old souls the next. Eventually, they convince Max to build a fort. Carol (Gandolfini), the creature who first befriends Max, tells him, “There should be a place where only the things you want to happen, happen.” And so it things do indeed happen. There’s a mud fight, a monkey pile, a dance and other forms of animalistic behavior.

The heavy-handed symbolism and straining for child-like whimsy would threaten to overwhelm the film if it weren’t for the actors’ pitch perfect delivery. O’Hara especially livens things up, getting laughs from nonsense lines like “Happiness isn’t always the best way to be happy.” However, the performances and comedic undertone are barely enough to overcome the movie’s ambling, lack of dramatic tension. It’s an imperfect film that runs slightly too long and, while the cinematography is gorgeous at times, the scenery lacks the vibrant colors of the book; there are too many hues of browns and dark greens. For all its faults, though, Where The Wild Things Are does cast an eerily hypnotic spell. Think of it as The Dark Knight for kids.

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