Sunday, October 25, 2009

Squalor: Where the Wild Things Are

Spike Jonze’s adaption of Where the Wild Things Are is a somewhat decent retelling of a classic that walks a fine line between beautiful success and disappointing failure, ever so slightly leaning towards the success for its younger audience.
Jonze’s ability to be both surreal and visceral makes the film a must see despite it’s few problems. Jonze and cinematographer Lance Acord's imagery is absolutely stunning and beautiful to watch, capturing the imagination and beauty of the original illustrations completely. The settings and characters fuse together seamlessly, a hard thing to find in most fantasy films in which the setting never quite integrates properly. The bird nest-like huts and dazzling fort that the Wild Things create look like alien, organic installation art pieces that any modern art museum would clamor to have, and any child would be proud to claim their own. Carter Burwell’s stunning score, mixed with the bittersweet vocals of Karen O (of Yeah Yeah Yeahs fame) further the dark atmosphere of the film, making the image a complete and impressive one.
The acknowledgment of this darkness is the strength of the film. Jonze fully captures and plays upon the rare ability of children to hijack terror, turning it into a game, a friend, and a confidant. Every moment of the film brought me back to my childhood, where just like Max I was stricken with fear and grief over a small comment by a science teacher regarding the eventual death of the sun, or shameful after an outburst against my parents. Sendak's story is a simple one; powerful because in just ten lines its able to capture the innocent anger of childhood. Jonze and Dave Eggers understand the magic of this simplicity. It’s an incredible feeling, something that only a director like Jonze could accomplish without superficial sentimentality.
Despite its beauty, the film has some unfortunate issues. After such an enchanting trip to first meet the Wild Things, hearing their modern day language and cadence is jarring, in stark contrast to the imaginative look of their figures. The voices and dialog of KW (Six Feet Under’s Lauren Ambrose) and Judith (Cathrine O’Hara doing Catherine O’Hara) are particularly distracting. I can see why Jonze and David Eggers made the choices they did (the Wild Things are supposed to be real examples from Max’s 2009 life) but it doesn’t quite fit. Judith especially, as self-proclaimed, is just a downer. Luckily, Paul Dano, Chris Cooper, Forest Whittaker, and James Gandolfini are able to create a little more depth and character with their voices, but it still doesn’t do enough to make the dialog more cohesive to the rest of the film.
The film also lags a bit, but not because its slow moving. Max’s experience with the Wild Things is an allegory of his experience with his mother and family. As he discovers the perils and sadness of responsibility, he begins to appreciate his mother, even wishing upon the Wild Things, “I wish you guys had a mom.” There are many moving moments as Max discovers this, specifically when Carol expresses his fear and frustration saying “everything keeps changing,” while Max finds himself unable to comfort the Wild Things and prove to them that everything will be ok, exposing himself just as his mother and every parent before her has had to do when their child realizes that they aren’t all powerful.
But instead of sticking with these powerful moments and keeping it close to the parent child allegory, Jonze and Eggers throw in an awkward, odd, and vaguely romantic (or does it mirror Max and his sister Claire?) relationship between Wild Things KW and Carol. It brings a conflict into the fray that is never fully realized or resolved and feels uncomfortable in a movie devoted to the powerful unconditional love between families. It’s not that the relationship didn’t deserve a place, but Eggers and Jonze seemed to struggle with whether or not they thought it did, leaving the film disjointed and sluggish whenever the subject was brought up.
Despite these flaws, the film retains visual magic. I immediately ran home and hugged both my parents in respect of all they’ve done for me and their power to still make things ok, even after 25 years. Younger audiences will have no trouble getting beyond the films flaws (if they notice them at all), and will be enchanted for the rest of their lives. I wanted to like you Wild Things, I really did. You just couldn't do it for me despite your beautiful face.

Read more from M @What's the Use of a Book
Read Wilde.Dash's review.

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