Tuesday, October 27, 2009
Movie Review: Where the Wild Things Are
This past weekend I managed to catch Where the Wild Things Are, the Spike Jonze directed adaptation of Maurice Sendak's beloved children's novel. Let me preface this by saying that I didn't know what to expect with this film. I remember the children's novel, a small thing amounting to something like 350 total words. I was worried about the ability to stretch that into a feature length film and still retain the quality and commitment to the story over a 2 hour time frame. Needless to say, all my fears where proven wrong.
the film stars newcomer Max Records as Max, a boy devoid of a father figure with too much energy to be contained. After picking a snowball fight with his older sisters friends (who ruin his well built snow fort) he trashes her room and later throws a tantrum while his mother is at home with her boyfriend (a very understated mark Ruffalo). His mother, (played by a wonderfully beleaguered Catherine Keener) yells at him and he bites her, having her describe him as wild. He runs out the door and down the street, plunging himself eventually into a dream world, filled with wonderful and slightly terrifying monsters.
He convinces them that he should be their king and promises them that nothing bad can happen while he is there and promises to make all the bad things go away, uniting the splintered monster group back into a family. Unfortunately, Max learns the hard way that being a ruler and being in charge means that sometimes you have to make some hard choices, and you certainly have to be careful of playing favorites. He grows especially close to two of the monsters, Carol (voiced by a really sublime James Gandolfini) and KW (voiced by Lauren Ambrose). Carol loves KW, but she isn't happy where she is at and thinks that other places and other adventures are what she should be doing, instead of being smothered by Carol. The other monsters, Ira (Forest Whitaker), Judith (Catherine O'Hara), Douglas (Chris Cooper), The Bull (Michael Berry, Jr), and Alexander (Paul Dano) each have their own foibles and mistrusts, meaning its up to Max to remind them all about what it means to be a family. The problem remains, is Max capable of doing that, and should he remain where the wild things are?
This film is a wonderful movie. Visually it has Spike Jonze's unique flavor all over it. Shot with a heavy usage of actual physical effects and puppetry with minimal CGI (mostly just in the Wild Thing's faces) the movie feels very real and concrete. Even the wire work on the giant puppets helps blend the real and imaginary world together. David Eggers, who co-wrote the adaptation with Jonze, really crafts a wonderful world. They manage to stretch Sendak's book in such a way as to build on the foundations he set up, but extrapolate the plot to reflect not only a children's audience, but to bear messages for adults as well. Really it was just the environment they created, using wood, sticks, twigs, almost like craft works to create structure, combined with the stark emptiness of the desert landscape and the lush forest areas that were both open and inviting and foreboding. It was really a picture world, like from a boys imagination, brought to life on the screen.
This brings us to the acting. Max Records really holds his own own in this film. He carries the entire weight of the film on his shoulders and makes you believe in this fantasy world. All of his wonder, pathos, and apathy are carried on his face, and somehow he makes you love him and the monsters, even when you wonder about their behavior. Max Records makes this movie his own, and through it reminds the audience of the wonder and delight, and above all the responsibilities, of being young and thinking you have all the answers. He is a reminder of youth, and of its mortality.
The supporting cast were also chosen wisely. Each Wild Thing is actually a different representation of Max's psyche. From Carol, who is basically him, to KW (how he sees his mother) to Judith (all the negativity in his life) and Douglas (his inventive side) to Alexander (the part who feels he has no voice and is ignored) to even the Bull (the part of him that feels alone). Each voice actor is superbly cast. James Gandolfini, known for playing the rough and hard Tony Soprano, is sublimely understated as Carol, who brings a gruff, yet tenderness to the role. A character who is unsure of what the world around him is or should be, smoldering a hot rage inside, and yet yearning to be loved and accepted by KW (mom) and his family. Catherine O'Hara sharp wit and biting tone makes her perfect for the always negative Judith, and each actor brings their own bit to the role, from softness to practicality. Even Catherine Keener in her small role as the Mom, makes you love her, all stressed and harried by her over imaginative son, yet you know that she so deeply cares for him that her heart aches. I cannot stress enough how wonderful they all are.
What really makes this movie so good is that it isn't a children's movie. Not entirely. In fact, some things may be to dark for young ones to watch. The movie is as much for grown ups as it his for the book's target audience. Jonze crafts a beautiful and bold film that speaks to many age groups, not simply defined by one title or demographic. There is next to nothing about this movie that I didn't like. Jonze creates a very personal and unique picture from a book once deemed "un-filmable." In a time when movies are cookie cutter genre blockbusters, its the rare studio films like these that catch your eye and remind you of the power of great film making. It starts with an idea and a vision. With Where the Wild Things Are, Spike Jonze idea and vision has cemented his name among the most original director working in film today. You need to see this movie.
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