23 November 2009

Where the Wild Things Are

Directed by: Spike Jonze
Written by: Spike Jonze & Dave Eggers
Full credits at IMDb

Spike Jonze accomplishes what he’s said he set out to do with Where the Wild Things Are, his meandering adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s slim, picture-book classic: he captures the visceral, mercurial nature of childhood. Jonze and screenwriter-collaborator Dave Eggers are deeply in touch with the pre-adolescent experience: the flights of imagination, the pangs of indignation: the thrill of the snowball fight, the hurt feelings when the game goes too far. Often filmed, especially at first, with a shaky handheld camera, the film reproduces the convincing and highly subjective point of view of an attention-starved child, Max (Max Records), who reacts to being wounded or ignored (by a too-cool teenage sister and a workaholic mom with a new boyfriend) by acting out. By being destructive. By being a wild thing.

After a particularly bad squabble in which he bites his mother (Catherine Keener), Max, in his ratty wolf costume, runs until he can’t, finds a small sailing vessel, and drifts into a moonlit sea until he lands upon what evokes a sylvan Skull Island. There, he meets a gang of leaderless monsters engaged in a primal Project Mayhem: destroying their nests, throwing each other into trees, demolishing forests faster than loggers in the Brazilian rainforest. (Shooting in Australia with his regular D.P. Lance Accord, among barren woods and a glaring sun, Jonze dissonantly roots his make-believe in reality; accordingly, the monsters are actors in extravagant costumes, giving the film a beautiful tactility.) Max, through the false boasting familiar to children, becomes their king, and they give each other solace in rumpus and the sharing of impossible dreams.

But, like Sad Max, it turns out the monsters are sad on the inside, and Jonze’s film soon collapses into a languorous examination of petty jealousies among bellyachers; the makeshift monster family is at loggerheads like the humanoid family Max left behind, and a number of set-pieces (strung together to make something approaching a story) in this alternate fantasy world parallel the ones we saw earlier in Max’s real life: the snow ball fight reappears as a dirt-clod war that ends in the same streams of tears. Except now Max no longer occupies the role of misfit child, but serves as the monsters’ matriarch; like the white man turned Negro in Finian’s Rainbow, Max learns through role reversal that it’s tough to walk in another guy’s shoes—here, his mother’s.

Jonze and Eggers unearth some sophisticated emotions: namely, that sometimes we hate the people we love, a fact ordinary kids’ movies don’t often acknowledge but that children themselves surely understand, at least instinctively. (The film also has a charming, childish absence of logistical detail: we never see Max eat.) The problem is that faithfully capturing the textures of juvenilia should be a means, not an end: Where’s the story? What’s the point? Where the Wild Things Are offers little insight beyond the banal: “It’s hard being a family,” as one character says. Is that really the best Jonze and Eggers could come up with? Just because it’s ostensibly a “children’s movie”—though aimed perhaps at man-childs—doesn’t mean it has to mimic a child’s inner life: emotionally rich, intellectually dim. Grade: B-

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