Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are

So now then. Welcome to the most complicated film of the year. How do you adapt one of the most beloved children stories of all time - a 10 sentence, ascetically beautiful masterpiece - into a feature film? A better question: how do you bridge the generational gap of fans, so that everyone can enjoy such a film?

Spike Jonze, the director responsible for two of the best, most original films in contemporary cinema (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) answers both those questions with his bold, beautiful, remarkably told new film, Where the Wild Things Are.


Spike Jonze, the director responsible for two of the best, most original films in contemporary cinema (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) falls short with his aimless, misguided, beautiful-looking new film, Where the Wild Things Are.

Truth is, Jonze’s film falls somewhere in between.

At its heart, Where the Wild Things Are is a passion piece, plagued by eight years of production hell, that is a thrill to look at, but hard to comprehend. If I were making a pros and cons list - which, ahem, I have – both columns would come out about even. At the top of the pros list would be the look and sound of the film, which is flawless.

Cinematographer Lance Accord, a Jonze regular, creates a vision that is unlike anything I’ve seen in recent years. From its rambunctious prologue, to its smooth grace once the Wild Things show up, you’ll actually find yourself grinning at how gorgeous this film is shot. Sound is three fold. Thank the sound engineers for their crisp clatter, Carter Burwell for his delicate score, and Karen O for her rowdy songs.

Next on the pros is the brilliant, eclectic cast. In the lead role of Max, actor Max Records sets a new standard for child actors. Jonze made it his goal to form a close, personal relationship with Records, and the trust has paid off. It would be a difficult role for an actor of any age, but the fact that it’s an 11-year-old kid is astonishing. It’s a tough role, and Records nails it. He’s backed by Catherine Keener (who’s just that good) as his struggling mother, and a slew of actors lending their unique voices as the Wild Things. It’s standard for actors to record their dialogue separately when voicing an animated character, but here, Jonze had the cast, including James Gandolfini, Forest Whitaker, Chris Cooper, and Catherine O’Hara, sit in the same room and record together, as if they were actually in the scene. The difference pays off, as the Wild Things talk and argue over one other, while maintaining their individual identities.

Now the bad news. First off, even with its PG rating, Where the Wild Things Are is not a kid’s movie. At all. There are themes and situations that kids simply won’t understand (or enjoy). So that’s first: the film is marketed as a children’s movie, but it’s actually for adults. Next is the awkward (or sloppy) shifting in tones. I know what Jonze is doing, I think. He wants the viewer to feel like a child, where we’re happy one minute, sad the next, explanation be damned. It works initially, but grows old quickly. You’re still feeling moved from the scene before when suddenly everyone is screaming at each other over thrown dirt. It’s hard to follow, and harder to care.

I can’t call Where the Wild Things Are a “bad” film if it is the best shot, scored, art designed and sound engineered movie of so far this year. But I also can’t call it “great” if I am unable to find any distinguishable, coherent tone from one scene to the next.

Bad films leave your mind the minute you walk out of the theatre, but Where the Wild Things Are was a film I thought about for days after I saw it. This is a movie that demands your attention while you’re watching it, and refuses to leave long after you’ve exited the theatre.

Do I recommend it? Hell yes, it’s bound to be the most original piece of American cinema this year. But can I guarantee that you’ll like it? No way. I’m still not sure how I feel about it, but I must admit that it’s the only film so far this year that I’ve gone back to the theatre for an immediate follow-up viewing. That says something. B+


  1. To me it seemed like they didn't know what direction to take it in or what to do with it, so it just sort of happened. Gorgeous movie to look at though, and I was impressed with Max Records for the most part. There were some awkward moments, but I really don't know how I feel about it either. I'm sort of setting on "it was okay, but pretty."

  2. Your full length review is spot on. It's really the same as I've felt, I've gone back and forth somany times on is it good, is it bad? Where in reality it's neither, but it is a gorgeous looking movie.

  3. Yeah this was a hard one to write, it's the type of movie that I hate putting a grade on. It's just is what it is.