Monday, October 19, 2009

Movie Review: Where the Wild Things Are

Where the Wild Things Are ****
Directed By:
Spike Jonze.
Written By: Spike Jonze & David Eggers based on the book by Maurice Sedak.
Starring: Max Records (Max), Pepita Emmerichs (Claire), Catherine Keener (Mom), Steve Mouzakis (Teacher), Mark Ruffalo (The Boyfriend), James Gandolfini (Carol), Paul Dano (Alexander), Catherine O'Hara (Judith), Forest Whitaker (Ira), Michael Berry Jr. (The Bull), Chris Cooper (Douglas), Lauren Ambrose (KW).

Children are a lot more complex than most adults give them credit for. They inhabit a world that is similar to the adult one, but also quite different. There are few movies made for children that realize that complexity and deal with it in an intelligent way. Where the Wild Things Are is one of those rare movies. It is a film that takes place entirely from the point of view of a child, and deals with that complexity amazingly well. For the running time of the movie, you are inside the head of the protagonist.

Max (played by the unlikely named Max Records) is about 10 years old, on that cusp of adolescence but not quite there yet. The opening scenes of the movie are amazingly well drawn as Max plays outside in the snow, and tries to get to get his older sister to join him, but she dismisses him by telling to “play with his friends”. Max doesn’t respond, yet the look on his face says more than words could - he doesn’t have any friends. The rest of the scenes before Max enters his own world are equally honest and truthful - from Max trying to get his mother’s attention (Catherine Keener) while she is on the phone on business, to his reaction when his mother brings her new boyfriend home for dinner, to her reaction that goes from euphoric to heartbreak as he has a snowball fight with his sister’s friend, which they take just a step too far. Max has a wolf costume he likes to dress in, and prowl around the house growling and destroying things. A fight with his mother goes a step too far, he bites her and then he takes off into the night. He runs into the forest, (and here is when the movie switches from reality to fantasy) and ends up on a boat that brings him to an island. There he walks in on a group of monsters. At first, he is scared as they threaten to eat him, but then he convinces him that he is a King, with magical powers.

Everything that happens in the movie is linked to Max’s mental state at the time. Which is why, when he shows up, he immediately declares himself the king. He wants to be in control, and isn’t in his own life. It is also why he is drawn to Carol (with the voice of James Gandolfini), the wildest of the wild things. When we first meet Carol, he is smashing the houses of the wild things. He has the destructive power that Max craves, and Carol reaches out to him. It is also why Max takes an immediate dislike to Alexander (with the voice of Paul Dano), the smallest of the wild things, who is weak and no one ever listens to. Alexander represents everything that Max hates about himself.

Everything that happens from there on can be similarly tracked. From Max’s increasing dependence and affection for KW (Lauren Ambrose), the most motherly of the Wild Things, and his kind of love-hate relationship with Judith (Catherine O’Hara), the only other female Wild Thing, who is what he dislikes about his own mother. Judith’s loving relationship with Ira (Forest Whitaker) also irks Max, whose own father is absent (but, who in his own way makes an appearance when Max designs a fort that recalls what he saw earlier in Max’s room was a gift from his father). In Douglas (Chris Cooper), Max has created the kind of loyal and kind best friend that he has always wanted for himself, but has given him to Carol instead. When things go bad, and Carol threatens to eat Max, it comes at the same point that Max must be becoming scared of being out by himself during a cold, dark night.

The film was directed by Spike Jonze, who has made two other similarly strange films – Being John Malkovich and Adaptation – that also, in their way, take place inside the protagonist’s heads. Unlike Michel Gondry, who seems lost now that Charlie Kaufman has started to direct his own screenplays, Jonze has continued on and made a masterful film. The cinematography by Lance Accord is wonderful, as it starts out recreating Max’s real world, and then his fantasy world using different color palettes to reflect Max’s state of mind. Jonze has adapted the brilliant kid’s book by Maurice Sedak in the exact opposite way that Ron Howard did when he remade the Dr. Seuss books. He has remained extremely faithful to the tone and spirit of the original work, while expanding it to fit into a feature length movie. It is a stunning achievement.

I am not sure I can think of another movie that has so precisely captured the complexities of a child’s imagination as well as this movie does. Children often seem like they are off in their own little world, and yet they are much more perceptive and complex than most people give them credit for. Where the Wild Things Are understands this, and has crafted a movie that kids are going to love (not really young kids, but once they reach around 7), and yet adults can also get something out of. Where the Wild Things Are is one of the year’s best.

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