Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Review: Where the Wild Things Are (Spike Jonze, 2009)

Where the Wild Things Are is the long-awaited and expected film adaptation of the beloved 1963 children's illustrated book by Maurice Sendak. Best known for his work in the music video industry and for renowned feature films Being John Malkovich (1999) and Adaptation (2002), the film is directed by Spike Jonze. The film’s central character is young Max (played with great enthusiasm by Max Records). In the brilliant opening sequences of the film we learn all about Max. We discover that he is a lonely boy with few friends and an estranged relationship to his mother and sister, but possesses a very wild imagination. After his igloo is destroyed by some of his sister’s friends, he unleashes his anger on her by destroying her room, as he does on his mother (Katherine Keener) by biting her when she invites her boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo) around for dinner. Distressed, and filled with childhood emotion, Max runs away from home. Hiding out in the woods, he finds a boat, which he sails through the night to a mysterious island, which he sets out to explore. It is here that he stumbles across the Wild Things and his life begins to change forever.
The Wild Things themselves are wonderfully realized. Utilising both a superb cast of voice talent (including James Gandolphini, Paul Dano, Chris Cooper and Forrest Whitaker) and a series of suited performers, the timing is perfect, and the interactions between them and Max are both humorous and emotional. The costumes are fantastic, and the otherworldly feel of the Island is effortlessly displayed through the films’ diverse locations. Max and the Wild Things chase each other through the dense forest, trek across the desert, compete in a dirt-clod fight in what seemed like a canyon, and finally farewell him from a beach. A key theme in Sendak’s fantasy, Jonze essentially turns the Island into another character in itself. The use of the hand-held camera for most of the film, and the grainy, sepia-like appearance of the image are also fantastic techniques that allows the viewer to feel, like Max, that they are encroaching on this world and don’t belong, but are riding the character of Max. The tracking shots that follow the characters in the various chase sequences are stunning and this beautiful imagery is well supported by a memorable musical score, which for me was one of the highlights of the film. This cannot be called a children’s film, but as Spike Jonze said himself, ‘a film about children’ and the combination of conflicting emotions and a vivid imagination.

One interesting question is that of what the Wild Things symbolize? Some may see them as functioning as a replacement for different members of his family depicted in a way so that he finally feels comfortable in a family environment. Another read though, is the idea that each Wild Thing possesses the qualities of one of Max’s emotions, and Max must face these emotions individually and master them (become King) when they resort to conflict. To avoid initial destruction, Max introduces himself as a king with magical powers to gain their trust. He also invents a number of games, and separates the group up into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ guys to properly gauge their position and to keep harmony. The group is finally divided again when Carol discovers that Max is not really a King with magical powers, despite the ignorance of the rest of the group, and Max decides he best head back home. While the world of the Wild Things is an invention by Max he learns a very valuable lesson about life, and accepting his family for what they are. In the final sequence we see Max hugged by his distraught mother, seemingly only a short period after initially leaving home. I was read this book as a young child, as many of my generation, and those generations before, would have. This is a film for us. While I believe it as remained faithful to Sendak’s book, Jonze’s quirky changes and additions are typical of him as an auteur. The plot is far too complicated and violent for young children, but adults can surely appreciate the technical brilliance of the voice-cast, the costuming, the cinematography and that score.

My Rating: 4 Stars

No comments:

Post a Comment