Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are / *** (PG)

Max: Max Records
Mom: Catherine Keener

With the voice talents of:
Carol: James Gandolfini
Judith: Catherine O’Hara
KW: Lauren Ambrose
Douglas: Chris Cooper
Ira: Forest Whitacker
Alexander: Paul Dano

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by Spike Jonze. Written by Jonze & Dave Eggers. Based on the book by Maurice Sendak. Running time: 94 min. Rated PG (for mild thematic elements, some adventure action, and brief language).

I can hear the complaints. “It’s not a kids movie.” “It’s depressing.” “It’s not any fun.” In fact, Warner Bros. Pictures felt director Spike Jonze’s original cut of the film was so family unfriendly they made him go back and re-edit some of it. So this is the more family friendly version of the film. But whatever you think the movie should be, it’s still a good movie. Possibly a little slow and a little too devoid of humor, but “Where the Wild Things Are” is a smart look at how difficult it can be for a kid to understand just how complicated life can be.

To say this isn’t a kids movie is to ignore half—if not more—of what childhood is about. Max (newcomer Max Records) is a boy who must often play by himself because the people closest to him have other things to worry about in their lives. So Max builds forts in the snow by himself and terrorizes his dog and desperately seeks the attention of his Mom (Catherine Keener, “The 40-Year-Old Virgin”), who despite her love for him has many concerns beyond Max—work, her ex-husband, a boyfriend.

Max has a vibrant imagination. When Mom is having a rough day, she has Max make up a story for her. One evening after Max pushes his Mom’s buttons to the point where she becomes very angry with him, he runs away. He finds a boat and sails across a sea. He discovers a land inhabited by wild beasts who behave very strangely. After he diffuses a situation with one of the beasts named Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini, “Romance & Cigarettes”), he convinces the small clan of creatures to make him their king.

Jonze’s script, co-written by Dave Eggers (“Away We Go”), obviously expands a great deal on Maurice Sendak’s children’s book. He uses all of the monsters seen in Sendak’s book as they were designed by the writer/artist. But unlike the book, each monster is fleshed out into an individual. Each of the monsters contains elements of Max’s own personality. Judith (voiced by Catherine O’Hara, “For Your Consideration”) is the side of his personality that is always negative. Alexander (Paul Dano, “There Will Be Blood”), the smallest monster, reflects the side of Max that feels no one ever pays any attention to him. The talented tunnel builder Ira (Forest Whitacker, “The Last King of Scotland”) is quiet and content. Douglas (Chris Cooper, “Adaptation”) is the consummate friend, even when his arm is ripped off! The Bull (Michael Berry Jr., “Star Trek”) is an ever present, seemingly imposing force, who turns out to be quite sweet when he finally speaks. KW (Lauren Ambrose, “Starting Out in the Evening”) is the one who is breaking away from the juvenile antics of the rest of the group, the element in Max ready to make the leap into adulthood.

Carol is the most like Max’s surface personality, the one who Max learns the most from. What their relationship amounts to is a deep examination of how the mind of a child works. The child wants everything to be the way he expects it to be, and a child’s expectations are as grand as their imaginations. Max proposes the building of a giant home for the entire monster clan, with an underground tunnel from one part to another. This fort will spring as a trap when anything enters that one doesn’t want to be there. What Max’s grand design does not consider is that each monster may not have the same wants and desires. These creatures’ personalities are as divergent as any group of people.

For all its insight into a child’s psychology, the one thing that “Where the Wild Things Are” is a bit light on is the fun. It is a dark film that misses much of the zeal of life children are able to express, even moments after their world has been devastated. When Max first arrives among the wild things, they do spend some time romping around having fun. But this whole environment is so foreign to the audience; we never really get a chance to relax in it before the tensions begin to arise amongst the monster clan. Plus the “real world” Max exists in is so fraught with the tensions of everyday life; we get the impression that Max lives a depressing life. I don’t think Jonze (“Being John Malkovich”) intend this, but we needed to see a good time for Max. We almost get that in the snowball fight, but that goes bad.

Many have complained, “This isn’t a children’s movie.” Hogwash, I say. My boy said, “This is sad.” But he sat riveted throughout most of it and said he enjoyed it when it was over. “Zombieland” isn’t a kid’s movie. “Inglourious Basterds” isn’t a kid’s movie. But there is hardly a movie made without graphic violence and sex that isn’t a “kid’s movie.” Movies are made out of fantasy—even those based on fact. Movies are often our primary connection with our childhood once we reach adulthood. And to say something that is thoughtful, intelligent, and even sad isn’t for kids is to deny that kids are capable of these characteristics. “Where the Wild Things Are” may not be what we as adults want out of a kid’s movie; but it is of childhood, and therefore something for a kid’s wonderment.

No comments: