Friday, January 14, 2011

Films of 2009: "Where the Wild Things Are"

Maurice Sendak’s 1964 Prize-winning children’s book Where the Wild Things Are contains 18 illustrations and ten sentences. Only four of those sentences, divided, occupy 17 pages altogether. Director Spike Jonze’s film version of the book is over an hour-and-a-half, requiring more in-depth characterizations and thematic material.

Unlike past adaptations of children’s books, which seemed more about expanding the story than telling it (Cat in the Hat, anyone?), this film version does likewise, except that it creates a level of childhood innocence and angst that expands the scope and structure in a very sophisticated, poignant, and quite intense way. Watching the film, I couldn’t help but recall the emotional struggles and alienation of the character Elliot from E.T. Like Elliot, Max (played by Max Records) struggles with ignorance from his mother (played by Catherine Keener) and sister. Also, a father figure is missing in his life. On top of that, and unlike Elliot, Max’s angst in terms of reckless behavior and play is startling at times, even before he runs away to the land of the Wild Things.

Some of my friends and colleagues have told me that they didn’t like this film version. One of them quoted it had “terrible values,” while another said it was good but “different.” I would agree on the latter note, in terms of the tone and environment that Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers (who also penned Sam Mendes’ Away We Go) chose. As other reviewers have noted, even though this film is based on a children’s book, it is not necessarily a children’s movie. Its level of angst and intensity may likely make some viewers scratch their heads. On the other hand, no film in recent memory has taken a short book and given it a mature level of storytelling, complexity, characterization, and environment that is both unique and creative. I, for one, thought the overall tone and quality was intriguing and visually-poignant; not to say that I wasn’t startled at times (I was).

It should also be noted that the puppetry and facial animation of the Wild Things is pulled off very well. The Jim Henson-esque puppet suits are a perfect representation of Sendak’s classic illustrations, and their characterizations are quite convincing, especially Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini), whom Max identifies with the most, and KW (voiced by Lauren Ambrose), an independent female Wild Thing who is considering leaving her clan.

Overall, Wild Things the film plays better to a Juno crowd of teens and adults rather than to the Pixar crowd. (Although, come think of it, Up had some pretty heavy themes in it as well.) Therefore, this is a definite case where the PG-rating should be taken seriously. Yet, apart from the book (and maybe even better), it creates a more emotional resonance and carefully-handled sentimentality that leaves you enlightened and empathetic for the characters and for a time of childhood innocence that we all once had.

Overall rating: 4/5 stars

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