Friday, March 5, 2010

Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

Title: Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

Director: Spike Jonze

Stars: Max Records, Catherine Keener, Mark Ruffalo

Written by: Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers, based on the book by Maurice Sendak


Spike Jonze is one of those filmmakers who takes his time to make his movies, but when he finally comes out and makes one, you just know it’s going to be something special. I still have not been disappointed by this auteur, so the expectations for Where the Wild Things Are were very high for me. Through productions pictures and clips and finally the trailer, I could see that Jonze was headed in the right direction with this one and that the film was going to prove to be something special indeed. So how did it turn out?

Its Tantrum Time!

Where the Wild Things Are tells the story of Max, a young boy desperately in need of some attention. Like every little ten year old boy, he wants people to spend time with him and acknowledge his existence. Problem is, everyone in Max’s family is so caught up in their own world that they ignore him. So he goes on these fits of anger where he starts destroying things and biting people. One day, when Max can’t take it anymore he runs away. He gets on a boat, and starts traveling to a mysterious fantastical island inhabited by wild creatures. Who are these creatures and how will they help Max overcome his anguish?


So yeah, this movie had lots of production troubles because it was never really clear what tone the film was going to have. This happens a lot with films that are hard to categorize. Should the film be for kids or for adults? Normally, this uncertainty in a production spells certain doom for it. It happened with The Monster Squad (1987) and Howard the Duck (1986) two movies that the studio didn’t know how to market. Are these movies made for adults or children? As a result, both of these movies, though fun and entertaining ended up confusing audiences and tanking at the box office. Not becaue they were bad, but because the studio didn’t know how to market them, which is the kiss of death for any production. Often times, the main problem with this kind of film is that studios fear that the film isn’t childlike enough. They either don’t want the film to be too graphic or violent, or they don’t want characters spewing profanity. But most of the times they just don’t want the film to be too scary for kids, because then they can’t sell it to kids.

But what happens when a film touches on child like themes, but isn’t necessarily a movie for children? Then the studio has to make a decision. In the case of Guillermo del Toro’s Pans Labyrinth (2006) they decided that the film was not for kids. That it was a fantasy film for adults, so they marketed it as such. And that worked wonders for the film because it was a critical and box office success. The same dilemma popped up with Where The Wild Things Are. Studio went through a process, until they finally decided that it was not going to be marketed as a film for kids, and that it was a film about childhood, but for adults. I think children could have seen this movie just fine, maybe they wouldn’t have found it to be a “fun movie”, but I don’t think they would have found it too scary. A 10 year old kid could take this movie in just fine. I don’t necessarily think that the movie was too scary at all; maybe the real problem would have been that the movie was too cerebral and symbolic for them, or not fun enough. And kids don’t really enjoy that, so the studio went with the “not for kids” thing. Which is fine by me. This movie works just fine as a fantasy film for adults.

This is one of those films where the kid cant take the realities of the world and escapes to a fantasy land in his mind, where he can work out his issues and hopefully come out of it with some sort of a solution that he can apply in the real world. On this one the issue is that he feels ignored, he wants people to talk to him, play with him. Problem comes when he doesn’t know how handle rejection and looses control of his rage. When he travels to his imaginary world, he meets the Wild Things, which of course represent people and situations from the real world. There is one of the Wild Things named Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini) who is a mirror image of Max. He is wild and has these anger tantrums where he starts breaking everything. So Max immediately takes a liking to him. And like in many films of this kind, ends up realizing what is wrong with his life and how to work on his problem.

One of the most interesting aspects of this film are the creatures, which were done by Jim Henson’s creature shop. Those Jim Henson guys are experts at making big hairy creatures that look like giant stuffed animals. The Jim Henson guys were perfect for this; with the Wild Things they created these creatures that bring to mind Ludo, the big dumb hairy creature that accompanies Jennifer Connely in Labyrinth (1986) or the giant guys from Jim Henson’s excellent childrens show Fraggle Rock. Big hairy lovable looking creatures. The only thing is that these Wild Things aren’t necessarily so cuddly and cute; they actually want to eat Max at one point! The creatures are certainly interesting to look at. Consequently, they are also interesting to listen to, the creatures were voiced by the likes of James Gandolfini, Paul Dano and Forest Whitaker.

Spike Jonze as a director did a fine job with this movie. He managed to make a movie that’s not overtly sugar coated like some children fantasy movies can be. This movie deals with the dark side of Max. Max sees himself in some of these creatures, and the creatures are wild and violent at times. But at the same time, the island where these creatures live is an extremely beautiful place. The movie does a fine balance between dark and light. There’s a scene where the creatures and Max run to the edge of a cliff and start howling together (something that the creatures love to do) and the scene is like these creatures basking in the glory of nature and all its splendor. At the same time they are celebrating being together and alive, same as any family should. I loved the symbolisms in the film. The creatures like to sleep in piles, one on top of the other in extreme togetherness, representing the togetherness that a family should have. So the film isn’t all gloom and doom, it actually has a very positive vibe to it in spite of dealing with the dark side of a child’s psyche. Where the Wild Things Are also reminded me of one of Spike Jonze’s music videos for Weezer called “Island in the Sun” which was filled with scenes of the sun shinning and the band playing with a bunch of exotic animals. For a movie that was deemed to dark by studio heads, this movie is filled with lots of sunlight and beauty.

Spike Jonze, spending some time on the set with actor Max Records

If you ask me, this movie goes down as a great childrens movie. Right up there with the great fantasy flicks like Labyrinth, Pans Labyrinth, The Wizard of Oz and others of its ilk.

Rating: 4 out of 5


James Gracey said...

Great review!

Aleks said...

As is the reaction many people have when news that a film is going to tackle a piece of nostalgia, I was very wary when this film was announced. No, not even wary, kind of upset and even a little angry. Then when I saw the first trailer I was a little encouraged, but still cautious. Finally, I saw the film and I am so happy with Spike Jonze. He definitely kept the heart of the book in tact, which I think is very important. I think alot of people wouldn't have forgiven him if he'd ruined this movie - or maybe I'm overestimating the number of people who care about the book but I don't think I am. It definitely has the mark of "this movie was made by people who care about the source material."

I like your discussion on the trouble of marketing fantasy based movies with childlike themes. I had never given it much thought before, but it seems very obvious now.

Franco Macabro said...

Yeah, its a common problem that this type of film faces. They don't know how to market it. It was a disaster when this kind of thing happened in the 80s.

But now they simply decide, "its not for kids" lets market it as a fantasy film for adults. At least theyve modified their approach and don't simply let the movie tank at the box office the way it used to happen.

Ive never read the book (I hear its only ten pages long) but Im glad to see a faithful fan it giving the movie the stamp of approval.

a.pelaez said...

Just saw this. I am very curious about the book now... Anyways thought it was a beautiful film but if I have to say anything it kind of falls flat a bit for me, in the second act, halfway through the film.

Gotta give it to those animation artists, the puppets were amazing and those sets were beautiful.

Have you seen "Tokyo!"? It's a three piece movie, three directors and three different stories, like a sort of "Paris, je t'aime" but set in Tokyo. Gondry does one of the stories. I really enjoyed this one.

Franco Macabro said...

@ Dada4: One thing I forgot to mention on my review is that I thought the story was maybe too simple, the film perhaps needed something to spice up its second and third acts.

But then I remember its based on a book that is only 10 whopping pages long, so if they kept faithfulness, thats probably why the story was a bit simplistic in nature.

As for Tokyo, you are the second person to recommend it to me, I will be making it a priority to check it out, and now that I know Gondry worked on it, even more so!
Thanks for that recommendation Dada4!

Reina said...

That's a great review! I loved the way the camera is used because it contributes to making you feel an intimate connection with the kid...And well, I don't know if I was on a sentimental mood the night we watched this one, but It made me feel really sad..still a beautiful movie!

Franco Macabro said...

You are right, Jonze gets that camera really close and personal with the little kid. This is a film that feels very intimate, very close, Jonze probably wanted us to really feel how lonely the kid felt, and his reactions to whatever he was feeling.


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