Monday, 14 December 2009

Where the Wild Things Are

Maurice Sendak's classic 1963 children's story Where the Wild Things Are lasts a princely total of 10 sentences. Not that this is a hindrance to Spike Jonze, one of our most idiosyncratic directors who seems to revel in opening up Sendak's slim story to a viewing audience. Truly, Wild Things (not that one) feels more like a Jonze film than a children's one.

He's made a terrific find in Max Records, taking on the lead role of the same name: Max is a mischievous but lonely boy, given to tearing around his house in a wolf costume. Deft storytelling beats establish in a matter of moments that his father is absent, his older sister's attention lies elsewhere and his mother (a nicely sympathetic Catherine Keener) is seeking affection from a new beau (Mark Ruffalo - stare and you'll miss him).

Jonze instantly nails the painful side of childhood, especially the flip from smiles to tantrums (the destruction of Max' outdoor igloo exemplifies such a reaction) and the wanton sense of savagery. Yet it's tempered by that irresistible sense of adventure, deep down in our primal selves: Max flees his house after an argument and, on discovering a boat, takes off across an unknown sea to an uncharted land. There he discovers a tribe of boisterous yet likeable creatures who seem to mirror his own fractured family life.

They range from the impressionable (James Gandolfini's Carol) to the discerning (Catherine O'Hara's Judith) to the neglected (Paul Dano's Alexander). Crowning Max their king, it doesn't take long for Max to realise human dynamics transgress any boundaries, be they fantastical or real. The joyous organic puppet and costume effects meanwhile hearken back to the earlier days of children's films and Karen O and Carter Burwell's inventive score is beautifully elegaic. Other favourites among the excellent vocal cast are Chris Cooper, Forest Whitaker and Lauren Ambrose.

And yet...there's more than a passing feeling it's more an intellectual exercise than an emotional one. In spite of the freewheeling fun the wild things share with Max, it doesn't take Jonze long to cut to the allegorical heart of the story, brightly sketched as it is. It's perfectly easy to see what drew Jonze to the story: replace the wild things with his usual array of misanthropes and freaks a la Being John Malkovich and the integrity of Sendak's story would still have been intact. He keeps things resolutely intimate, the camerawork hemmed in and the humour subtle. Refreshing as it is to have a children's film that doesn't pander to its audience, one can't help think that Wild Things could do with being a little more...wild.

1 comment:

  1. I love this movie, it is just a beautiful movie that hits all categories from childrens movie, drama, action, horror, comedy and just strange movies, it is unique, innovative and well adapted from the book.