Monday, October 19, 2009

Movie Review: Where the Wild Things Are

Where the Wild Things Are is the best and most original film I've seen this year.

250px-Wrightfallingwater.jpgOddly this film made me think of Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater. Commissioned to build a house on a site with a beautiful waterfall, Wright's concept was unusual and inspired. Instead of putting the house below the falls with a glorious view, Wright put the house right on top of the falls, making the house a part of them.

Instead of watching a story about a nine year-old, Where the Wild Things Are made me feel like I was a nine year-old.

Unless you've recently read it to a child, you probably just have fond but vague memories of Maurice Sendak's beloved book. It has only 10 sentences. Max is sent to his room, imagines visiting a forrest of monsters, becomes their king and returns home. How do you adapt this to a full length film? Director and co-writer Spike Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers take a very different approach than what a Disney or Pixar would do. They filled out the world suggested by the book, yet it did it in such a way that the details still feel only roughly sketched. A friend described it as barely having a plot but yet still having a strong narrative. The individual scenes are not so much about events but rather about emotions.

Max loses a snowball fight, is ignored by his older sister and busy mom, gets angry and runs away. The transition from reality to imagination is seamless. His trip to the island on a small boat in very rough seas was one of the most harrowing I've seen in a long time, and yet it wasn't viewed as such. We don't see Max scared, it's just how he got to the island. There's no "Toto I don't think we're in Kansas anymore" moment. He just arrives, sees the monsters, is a bit confused and afraid and beomes their king. Just like in the book.

He spends a lot of time on the island and the six monsters each have a personality (unlike in the book) but it's not clear who they are or what they want. They play, sometimes very roughly. They have fun, get frightened, inspired, sad, annoyed and confused and often switch between these quickly; just like real kids. Sometimes the monsters acted like adults, sometimes like children. Sometimes Max learns from them, at other times he teaches them. It's like the film has the attention span of a nine year-old though the individual scenes are developed enough to have emotional weight. The opening real world segment was short and yet I was often surprised at how many things they found to reference throughout the lengthy island sequence.

The monsters are Labyrinth-like muppets with extraordinary CGI faces set in a real world, with huge bonfires and violent jumping and real trees that they shatter. This isn't a world filled with bright primary colors like most kids film and while there are dark sections, I wouldn't call it a dark film (though I'm sure some would). Jonze mostly uses a handheld camera kept right next to Max's head. It's still third person, but I felt like I was right there with him, running around and seeing the world through his eyes, always looking up at the adults and the monsters. I felt small in this world, like a nine year-old must always feel.

Between the camera rolling around with Max and the script jumping around and the deep and varied emotions, Where the Wild Things Are gave me a sense of uneasiness of not knowing what the rules are. And if I did figure them out, they changed, as quickly as in Calvinball. Throughout it I was filled with wonder that a film could do this.

Stanley Kubrick refused to talk about what 2001: A Space Odyssey meant because he made it to be a non-verbal experience. He wanted to induce the sense of awe that would accompany the first meeting of extra-terrestrials. I think it was in Visions of Light that one filmmaker said about Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven, "I didn't know you could tell stories that way". It's amazing that a studio let this film get made and didn't screw it up (even though they tried). A Kubrick or a Malick might have had the vision and the clout to pull this off, but that Jonze and Eggers did is quite an achievement.

This film made me feel like a nine year-old, but what it will do for an actual nine year-old, I have no idea. Some will be frightened by the destruction, others will like seeing the (non-cuddly) monsters. If the 69% Rotten Tomatoes rating, is any indication, I'm sure a lot of adults will find it too ill-defined and complain like Stephanie Zarcharek that it's tendious. It does slow down towards the end, but by then I was completely enthralled.

Here's a great (and long) New York Times Magazine article on the film and Jonze. "[Jonze] hadn’t set out to make a children’s movie, he said, so much as to accurately depict childhood. 'Everything we did, all the decisions that we made, were to try to capture the feeling of what it is to be 9.'" I'll add that that extends to the slightly creepy and yet utterly childlike soundrack. In other words, perfect.


mdeals said...

Ya i totally agree with you "where the wild things"
is the best film of the year....

Samantha K said...

the only thing that confuses me more than this movie is that so many people thought it was so good! On a positive note, the kid who did the lead-role did a great job, and there were cool visual effects too