October 18, 2009

Where The Wild Things Are (10/18/2009)

Lettergrade: complicated.

Where The Wild Things Are is one of those movies that I have a ton of respect for, but did not especially enjoy watching. The look, feel, and style evokes a magical kind of retro 70s nostalgia which in many ways perfectly captures the emotional spectrum of what its like to be a kid who feels neglected and lonely. My issue is that the movie is almost all about feeling with very little story. I want to acknowledge that the approach that director Spike Jonze and co-screenwriter Dave Eggers took in adapting Maurice Sendak's beloved children's book is wholly appropriate and perfectly valid, but I guess I just need a little more from a movie myself for it to really take off.

My sister tells me that my grandmother had a well-worn copy of Sendak's book, originally published in the 60s, and read it to us often while we were growing up. Of that I have virtually no memory, and therefore I cannot really comment on how faithful Jonze was in making his adaptation. As I understand it, the basic story is the same, only with a few more illustrative incidents which were inserted to flesh out the characters more thouroughly. Another change, apparently, is that the wild things are named in this version and have more distinctive personalities which seemingly mirror Max's life and emotional spectrum more closely.

One thing I will heap tons of praise on the filmmakers for is the decision to have the Jim Henson Creature Shop design suits for real people to wear on the set, rather than do the monsters as all-computer generated entities. For one, it probably helped 12 year old Max Records achieve the excellent performance he turned in, but on another level, seeing actual, tangible things running wild through the forest instead of having been pasted in via computer added to the soul of the picture immeasurably. The faces are digital, however, and are expressive and emotive in ways that would be tough for any puppet to match. I think Jonze understood the value of both technologies perfectly and made the best possible use of each.

My father-in-law observed that the tantrum-prone Carol, the monster that James Gandolfini voices, has a number of interesting parallels to Tony Soprano, not the least of which is his penchant for taking out his anger violently and without much thought of the consequences. Chris Cooper, Lauren Ambrose, Catherine O'Hara, and Forest Whitaker provide the voices for the other creatures, although to be honest with you, I had a tough time identifying any of them before I saw their names in the closing credits.

Jonze actually shot his first version of the picture in 2007, but Warner Bros. freaked at the dark, impressionistic nature of the story and threatened not to release it all. After some extensive and recutting both Jonze and WB wound up with a picture they felt honored the book and calmed the nerves of the twitchy executives.

I don't have much else to say about the picture, frankly, but want to take a moment to acknowledge that the film's theatrical trailer is probably among the best I've seen. The use of the Arcade Fire song set against the beautiful design of the monsters and the tactile pleasure of seeing them all romp around the forest, simply combined into something almost breath-taking for me. With a trailer so good, perhaps it was only inevitable that the film itself wouldn't pack the same punch. Nevertheless, although it is a picture I didn't feel much for myself, I recognize that there's a lot of great stuff happening here, and I think the current state of family movies is better off with a movie like this around than without.

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