Wednesday, October 14, 2009

"Where the Wild Things Are"

Recent years have seen much of my childhood coming back to haunt me, “GI Joe” and “Transformers” have been given the big screen treatment, “Indiana Jones” came back for a new adventure, even “Doctor Who” has made a comeback. With these revivals there has been a lot of discussion of defacing my generation's childhood. It is with that in mind that I went to see the movie adaptation of one of my childhood's most treasured storybooks, a movie that has been in the works for over a decade and has been reportedly subject to a lot of executive meddling; Maurice Sendak's “Where the Wild Things Are”.

“Where the Wild Things Are” is the story of Max (Max Records), a creative and energetic child who is in desperate need of some Ritalin, a shrink, and a spanking. His dad is out of the picture, his sister is too busy with her friends to spend time with him, he seems to have no friends of his own, and his mom doesn't have enough time between work and trying to start a new relationship to give Max the attention he thinks he deserves. Of course this gives Max all the excuse he needs to act like an unholy terror. Within the film's first fifteen minutes Max destroys his sister's bedroom, disrupts his mother's date (which she has at home rather than going out and leaving the kids home alone), and runs away from home.

That's right, he runs away; he's not sent to bed without supper, we do not get to see his room turn into a jungle, he just runs away, steals a boat, and sails to the island of the Wild Things. Alright then, you have to expect a few changes, right? I mean this review is already longer than the entire book the movie's based on, and they had to stretch this out to ninety minutes, so this is not a total surprise.

Once on the island we get to see the film's strongest feature, the Wild Things themselves. Sendak's drawings are brought to life with a blend of old fashioned people in costumes and seamless high tech CGI faces. Of course it would still all fall apart if they were not given good voices; James Gandolfini (“The Sopranos”), Lauren Ambrose (“Six Feet Under”), Catherine O'Hara (“For Your Consideration”), and Forest Whitaker (“Vantage Point”) provide this final ingredient to make those old drawings into living, breathing creatures.

If it seems like I am gushing about the visuals of this film, it is because it is simply its strongest point. The creatures and the sets will make you gape in awe, which is good because it's all downhill from there.

From the get-go you can tell that this is a Spike Jonze film. From the very first scene the whole things screams “independent film”. You mileage may vary on this, but I found Jonze's choice to film most of the movie on hand held cameras to get very old very fast. I know it was meant to bring you into the action of the film, but there were times during the action sequences where I was left thinking “Wow, I wish I could actually see what is going on”.

The movie's soundtrack is, I imagine, supposed to sound light and imaginative. It's supposed to make me think of my childhood days of building snow forts and having dirt clod fights. It didn't. I couldn't stand the music which, like Jonze's hand held camera work, made me think of an independent film, and not a particularly good one. Of course the fact that the original music was performed by Karen Orzolek, Jonze's then girlfriend, doesn't help dispel this feeling. Spike, you had a huge budget for this film; you could have hired people to make good music to score your film with, not this simplistic screechy nonsense.

There's only one more thing I have to criticize about this film, and that's the story, or lack of one. Admittedly, the strength of the book, “Where the Wild Things Are”, is its art, not its story, and the same can be said for the film. The whole thing kind of meanders around for the bulk of the movie showing off the fantastic work of the people who made the costumes and sets while only touching on the film's main story, which is essentially Max discovering things about himself. The majority of this self-discovery is handled in the films final fifteen minutes or so.

Maybe I just had a bad case of Phantom Menace Syndrome going into this film, but it largely left me cold. I loved the visuals (if not the camera), and would say it's one of the most beautiful films I've seen this year, but it's just not very good. There are scenes in the film that are probably too scary for younger audiences (the ones most recently familiar with the books) due largely to just how real the Wild Things look, but I fear that older kids who wouldn't be bothered by this are going to be a little bored.

To truly appreciate the visuals in the movie, I think you really do need to see it on the big screen, and if it weren't for that I would not recommend seeing this in the theater. The problem is that I think the sets and the Wild Things themselves deserve to be seen on the big screen to get the full effect of them. The other problem is that the story to justify going out to a theater just isn't there.

Ultimately, I left feeling like Jonze is trying to create something on the level of “The Wizard of Oz”, and he succeeds with the film's visuals, but fails in the story and soundtrack departments. If you decide to take the kids to this, just be aware that you may have to hold them during some of the scarier parts (there were kids crying in our theater), and just try to enjoy the wonderment of seeing the Wild Things moving on screen.

Hopefully time will provide us with a director's cut of the film that puts everything back the way it was before Warner Bros decided that it wasn't “family friendly” enough, and maybe then Spike Jonze will be vindicated, but until then we are left with this beautiful but disappointing production. The wild rumpus starts in theaters on October 16th in theaters nationwide.

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