Monday, October 26, 2009


Spike Jonze cannot go another seven years between making movies. That much is clear after finally taking in Where the Wild Things Are. There's too much swirling around in his imagination and not enough years in a lifetime to get it all out. The amazing thing about Jonze's film career, of course, is that he's been so creative while working on other people's visions -- Charlie Kaufman's on the brilliant Being John Malkovich and the frustrating but very clever Adaptation, and now Maurice Sendak's on Where the Wild Things Are.

Maybe that's Jonze's brand of genius -- he doesn't have stories to tell, but an infinite number of ways to tell them. Even this movie, which has called upon Jonze to provide more of the story than he ever has (he shares screenplay credit with Dave Eggers), doesn't really offer a whole lot of narrative. Boy feels lonely, boy escapes into his imagination, boy encounters big fuzzy monsters who play, then fight, then hug him goodbye, his mom is happy to have him home, the end. This isn't a knock against the movie by any means. The book didn't have much in the way of story either. And when that very simple skeleton allows Jonze to layer on the sights and sounds he provides here, I can't imagine how one could complain about the plot.

It's become a cliche to say a director "creates a world" within his film, but we're not going to get anywhere talking about this movie unless we talk about the world Jonze creates in Wild Things. It's not just the creatures either but the environment they inhabit. The homes they live in, made of branches and sticks but with all the delicate appearance of spun sugar. The deep forests and steep cliffs and raging waters. The nature of the story means that Jonze is bound by nothing in terms of what he can create, but he doesn't take that carte blanche to create surreal dreamscapes or melting clocks or anything else you'd find in that Simpsons episode where Homer finds his spirit coyote. Save for the giant fuzzy monster-animals (which are a total triumph of visual effects, practical or otherwise), Jonze's environs are all naturalistic. The dreamlike elements are in the layout (a forest, a desert, an ocean all within walking distance of each other) and in those things that a young kid like Max would find fantastical -- intricate tunnels and forts and vast open spaces for nothing but play. Jonze gives Max all the wonders of the world around him and only asks him to horse around in them.

Young Max Records does a fairly remarkable job as the character Max, considering he's not acting opposite people for most of the film. He's completely a kid, with a kid's tantrums and exaggerations and enthusiasms and fears all set exactly right. I really liked the way they depicted Max in his real life. That scene where he's so wounded by his sister's friends, his sadness and hurt feelings make sense for him, but if you look at it, the older kids were actually engaging with him, throwing snowballs back and forth and playing with him. It was only when their pile-on crumbled his snow fort -- and more importantly when they got in their car and drove away -- that Max started to cry. Max isn't a victim beyond the fact that the people in his life are bigger and older than he is. Which, if you've ever been a kid longing to be accepted by the big kids, IS full of trauma. (Of course, you might not read the older kids as charitably as I -- in fact, I don't think Rommate Mark will ever forgive them for busting that snow fort.)

There's a lot of A-->B analoging going on in the imagination world. The monsters are bigger than Max, too, but he's their king (basically because he says so). His main quest is to keep everybody together, living in one happy fort where they all sleep in one pile, despite there being obvious fractures and hurt feelings and sisterly characters choosing to spend time with new friends. The clear lines aren't a hindrance to me, and I actually appreciated how the conflicts in the film were such kid conflicts. He just wants everybody to stay together. And for no one to realize that he's not a powerful king but a scared boy. Taken that way, they seem to be equally adult conflicts, but there's really a lot about forts and tunnels as well.

I can't give enough credit to the voice actors for making the monsters come alive. This is a movie that works for kids and adults not because there are kids moments punctuated by sly nods that only the adults would get. It's pretty much all for the kids. But I found the most adult-oriented pleasures could be found in the voice performances. James Gandolfini's big, immature, not-always-gentle giant. Lauren Ambrose playing the perfect big sister (who, no matter how far she gets away from Claire Fisher, still gravitates to really annoying friends). Catherine O'Hara pretty much steals the show as a fickle, petty, jealous, and altogether hilarious monster.

I could keep going like this, paragraph after paragraph of things that made me love Where the Wild Things Are. It just does exactly what you'd hope it would do -- it places your spirit in the body of a boy, dressed up as a wolf, pretending to be a king.



JA said...

Lovely review, Joe.

Oh and love the "spun sugar" bit - hadn't heard that comparison before but it's perfect. Perfect!

lumenatrix said...

I think you're absolutely correct about the older kids. They were playing along. There was no animosity, they weren't being bullies or trying to hurt him, they were just playing along and took it too far, not realizing where the line would be. I don't even think they really meant to destroy the fort, it just sort of happened. When it did, they helped him get out and made sure he was OK before they left, they didn't want to hurt him, they just didn't know how to deal with the emotional side of it.

I loved that scene, I thought it was such a simple, great depiction of how kids work, no bad guys, no good guys just a bunch of older and younger kids no knowing exactly where the lines are with each other. You don't see that too often, the older kids are almost always cruel bullies, it was good to see the subtleties.

pvt. awesome said...

Thanks for the great thoughts about the movie, Joe. You said it so much better than I could have.

One of the most refreshing aspects of the movie for me was the fact that the kid actually acts like a kid. He's not some precocious know-it-all who suffers the foolish adults around him. He's just a kid going through kid feelings and acting out because of it. He's got flaws and lessons to learn and these don't make you love him any less.

Roommate Mark said...

Hey Joe,

Our conversation made me reevaluate this movie. Thanks to you, I just wrote this...

Joe Reid said...

Thanks, Mark! I loved your piece. It looks like the link you left got cut off, so people, go read Mark review here.

Nate Tyson said...

Hey there, I followed the link from Critical Condition, and i felt compelled to let you know that I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on the film, especially because they so closely resemble my own.

Regarding the prevalence of forts and tunnels in the film, I haven't seen many critics mention the film's central visual symbol: the womb. From the giant fort to KW's insides, the use of confined, womb-like spaces as realms of safety or familial intimacy struck me as one of the central metaphors of the film.

I may be reaching, but Max and Caroll's attempts to reconnect with their respective mother/sister/whatever figures are almost always attempts to return to enclosed, safe spaces, free from outside influence or distraction.

jessica said...

Not-So-Fun Fact: For reasons unclear to me, my workplace has recently blocked access to The Critical Condition as a "malicious website".

Anonymous said...

Jessica, mine does, too! I have to wait til I get home to access TCC.