October 8, 2009

Where The Wild Things Are: Jonze Delivers

This morning I saw an advance screening of Spike Jonze's eagerly anticipated film adaptation of the classic children's book Where the Wild Things Are. As I've mentioned in previous posts, this is a film I've been not-so-patiently waiting for all year. Actually, I've been waiting for this film since it was announced a few years back.

En route to the screening with a few colleagues this morning, I started to get a sense of dread that the film couldn't possibly deliver on the lofty expectations I had for it. After all, Where the Wild Things Are was a truly beloved book of mine as a child and despite the fuzz of memory, there is still, to this day, a very clear picture in my mind of what the story is and who the characters are, and what the world they inhabit is like. The magic of the book and fondness I have for it, are, in large part, a creation of my own devices, and therefore, it seemed unlikely somebody elses interpretation could be up to snuff. I remember drawing my own versions of the Wild Things, expanding the story on my pad of paper, or, if not that, in my mind. The original text, amazingly, only contains nine sentences. When I had read that in a recent article about Spike Jonze in the New York Times, I thought it was an error. I remembered, in my minds eye, so much rich detail to the story; so many amazing little particulars about the Wild Things, that I had actually gleaned from the fantastic illustrations, not the body of the book. In large part, the magic of the book stems from the fact that so much is suggested in the drawings rather than explicitly stated in the text, which makes the book very personal as the child fills in the considerable blanks themselves.
My fondness for the material is also tinged with a healthy dose of nostalgia, remembering a time when the premise of the book seemed less fantastic and much more... possible. Given this, how could a film deliver on such an unquantifiable thing as my own personal response and connection to the material? If I can't even put into words what it is about the book that drew me so strongly to it in the first place, how could I expect a filmmaker to draw that whimsy, charm, mischieviousness and sense of adventure out and put it on celluloid? Not only that, how could he do it in a way that not only met my expectations, but elevated and enriched the book so that it worked cinematically and matched the tone and magic of Maurice Sendak's original book? It's such a tall order that as we drove the Warner Brothers screening room this morning; it started to dawn on me that what I was really asking for was for a complete stranger to somehow capture all of this; all of these personal reactions and responses to the story; and package it in a way that worked with the version that only exists in my head, and thats compounded by the fact that the memories of the book are clouded by years where the Wild Things no longer ran wild in my imagination, and instead existed solely in my heart; as a part of my childhood and a time of innocence, whimsy and childlike wonder.

As we arrived at the screening, I had resigned myself to the fact that all of my anticipation of the film was really quite naive. My expectations weren't just unlikely to be met, but instead, they were impossible. Shortly after the lights dimmed and the film began, something incredible happened. Amazingly, the film delivered exactly what I had been hoping for. Jonze, and his wonderful film, perfectly capture the feeling of being marginalized, misunderstood and under appreciated that comes with being a child - and, in the case of Where The Wild Things Are - drives the story forward. He knows where the gold of the story is - on the island with Max and the Wild Things - and he wisely gets us there quickly, but not before doing an excellent job of showing us what kind of kid Max is in the real world. Once the story transitions from Max's life at home with his mother and sister and moves to ... where the wild things are; the film cast me under a spell much like the book did when I was eight years old. Jonze and his production design team have done an absolutely incredible job of creating a world of where these monsters can exist; and while it looks very much like the world we inhabit, it also has its own aesthetic and style. It feels real and familiar but also wild and unique. But more importantly, they've created Wild Things with unique personalities, nuances, relationships and stories that are somehow true to the core of the book while at the same time are completely new inventions of Jonze and his co-writer Dave Eggers. They've brought the well known illustrations from the book to life, and added details that seem just right. It's how I always imagined it and how I never dreamed it would be at the same time.

Jonze's greatest success with this movie - and there are many - is the restraint he shows not just as a director but as a story teller. The movie keeps it simple, sticking to the basis of the original story and not clouding things with over the top production design, virtuoso camera work and an overly involved or needlessly complicated story. The film sees the world - and tells the story - like a child would. The movie exists in a world where trust is given not earned, people are accepted as they are and the notion that everything will be great if we just build a great fort and and stay together isn't naive, it's the mission statement of the island. Max doesn't ask to be the King, but rather takes the role out of necessity. But once he is crowned the King of the Wild Things, he does his best to meet their needs and keep them happy and doesn't try to rule over them, but rather give them everything they've ever wanted. Despite his good intentions, he soon discovers that their world - and their problems - are much more complicated than he ever imagined; and perhaps, the job is too big for a boy. How the story arrives here, though, is really quite magical. I've never seen a film with non-human characters that does such an effective job of letting you get past the suit, or the special effect, or the CGI, and really focus on the character itself. A large part of this success can be attributed to the voice work in the movie, particularly by James Gandolfini, who is absolutely fantastic; with great support work from Catherine O'Hara, Forest Whitaker, Chris Cooper and Lauren Ambrose. I was very skeptical about Gandolfini voicing one of the Wild Things; but I couldn't have been more wrong. Not only does he deliver a very moving, sad, powerful performance, he so convincingly brings the character of Carol to life that I simply couldn't imagine anyone else playing the part after seeing the film. Another revelation is the exceptional performance of the child in the role of Max. Max Records, who's only previous acting experience was a bit part in last year's The Brothers Bloom is absolutely perfect in this movie. Records performance says so much with so little; he seems to be delivering a performance that he himself couldn't possibly understand at his tender age. It's pitch-perfect and it's the heart of the movie.

Where the Wild Things Are made me feel like I was eight years old again, and that's really the highest praise I could give the movie. I can't wait to see it again on an IMAX screen. My congratulations to Spike Jonze and his entire creative team. Wild Things is a fantastic accomplishment; and you somehow exceeded my expectations when I thought simply meeting them was impossible.

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