Monday, October 19, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are

Spike Jonze has made a few standout films that refuse to follow Hollywood’s overly beaten track, peopled with unusual characters, which is doubtless why actors on top lists appear in his films. In addition to the wonderful work done by Jonze and his co-screenwriter Dave Eggers, Maurice Sendak’s world is brought to life by wonderful actors.

Naturally when I heard Where the Wild Things Are would be made into a film, I began to complain of its imminent ruin. Until Spike Jonze’s name came into the story. Now that could be interesting. I felt certain he would be faithful to the children’s book experience. That Maurice Sendak more than endorsed Jonze’s vision of his book is terrific, but then Sondheim endorsed the very odd film version of “Sweeney Todd,” so original authors aren’t always the best judges of a film. Happily, Sendak’s take on the script by Jonze and Eggers as well as Jonze’s overall vision was on the mark.

I had initially been concerned with the very young children waiting on line for the 7:20 showing I attended on Saturday night – this film was potentially pretty scary. But, as one woman on line with a toddler and a 5-year-old said, “Oh they’ve seen Lord of the Rings, they’ll be fine.” Oh, OK. Well she was right, they were. The kids at that showing were great, lively, fascinated, totally involved in the story. This cannot be said of some of the accompanying adults, one at least of whom answered his cellphone and had a conversation during the film!

Visually thrilling with depth of characters of humans and non-humans alike, this film is a delight start to finish (about 90 minutes later). Just take it for itself, then go home and revisit the book that inspired it.

Wild Things has heart and soul and life. It adores the child’s imagination that gets him into trouble as it helps him through difficult days in ways that adults may not emulate.

Max Records as Max is marvelous, a real joy. Yes, he’s a beautiful child, but more than that, he’s a real little boy. When he cries at the destruction of his igloo, his tears make us cry with him. I used to build igloos myself, in the front yard of the family home in south Queens. I love igloos. I was luckier than Max – I had friends to share it, and to fight at my side with whoever might destroy it. Alas, not so for poor Max. Trials and tribulations build to his breaking point. When he bites we are aghast, yet immediately on the defensive when a perfectly nice guy (a simple and very fine Mark Ruffalo as the boyfriend) objects to such behavior. Max is our sibling, our family, and we’ll chastise and fight him, but protect against any and all interlopers as well. Max is …. us.

The physical characters of the wild things are spectacular, moving, emotive, and as human as any human. First, though, the humans: Catherine Keener, clearly a Jonze favorite, is a working mom, tired, loving, angry, real. Pepita Emmerichs in her brief screen time makes an impression as Max’s sister Claire. She has just the right balance of self-involvement and the need to be one of the teenage group, then adds a vital moment of concern for her little brother, only to be overridden by her desire to be the same as the other teenagers. That her brother Max is not the same as anybody isn’t necessarily easy on her. Of course, all little brothers are torments and embarrassments to the elder sisters, as any elder sister will tell you. Again, Mark Ruffalo is quietly on target as mom’s boyfriend.

Let’s go where the wild things are, a remarkable, frightening, exhilarating place for Max’s adventure. And while we go there, you naysaying parents out there, let’s remember this is fantasy and not a blueprint for raising children.

In the other place, the creatures to which some wonderful actors have been transformed are enchanting.

James Gandolfini voices Carol, Max’s first wild friend who reflects Max’s own violent responses. Therefore the two bond almost immediately. The exaggerated echoes of Max’s behavior are clearest in Carol, to children as well as adults. Gandolfini is so expressive as Carol, he’s funny, delightful, warm, infuriating, angry, selfish, and terribly honest. Sounds like a child.

Paul Dano as Alexander the Goat is just heartbreaking, desperately trying to be part of the inner circle, any inner circle. It’s true, no one listens to him.

Judith is so very annoying, and perfectly played by Catherine O’Hara.

Ira is amazing creation, I hadn’t a clue it was Forest Whitaker. What a lovely, full characterization.

As for the quiet and shy bull voiced by Michael Berry Jr. – silence works. The few times that bull spoke, or didn’t speak, or sighed, he had our full attention. I wished for more of him.

Chris Cooper voicing Douglas, the steadfast friend of Carol even when – no, no spoilers here. Douglas is the friend we all want, and Chris Cooper is the actor we all want to play him.

Finally Lauren Ambrose: The golden girl can do no wrong. Voicing KW, whom Carol clearly adores, she feels like the heart of the film; she is mom, loving, understanding, and tough. Neither Carol nor Max can put anything past her. It is her presence that creates the extraordinary scene of the creatures sleeping together in a pile. She envelops the little community, and Max.

The only characters about whom I felt nothing in particular were Bob and Terry, the owl friends of KW’s that so alienate Carol. And we get that, don’t we. Neither Carol nor Max nor the audience can understand a ‘word’ the owls say, so we feel left out along with Carol and Max when all the other wild things seem to communicate with those interlopers.

The visuals are achingly beautiful and occasionally terrifying – that tiny boat in a great sea, the storm, the landing, the initial viewing of those wild things. Ominous ‘monsters’ becoming children – and adults -- we recognize, and then the dark forest opening into clearings, sand dunes, and the sea. It’s a whole world, where the wild things are. Oh, and then the Fort, the tunnels, it’s all delicious. The creation of the where is glorious and gorgeous. I have no desire to see any “making of” for this film, I fear they’d be spoilers in themselves. I loved the magical mystery tour of Spike Jonze’s vision.

Since the book Where the Wild Things Are is not of my childhood, but rather a ‘classic’ introduced into my adult life, it’s easy to understand the comments that this film is for adults more than for children. Just wait, though, until you’re in an audience filled with children. This is their story. They get it, they love it. And, of course, it’s for children of all ages.

~ Molly Matera, turning off the computer, but not the light. I have reading to do.

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