02 November 2009

Review: Where the Wild Things Are

Genre: Fairy Tale / Action-Adventure


I was one of the few, lucky enough to have seen this new film by rollicking director Spike Jonze in context with a former professor's subsequent panel on its inauguration into the canon of children's media. Though said panel itself did not provide too special or inspiring an interpretation of the film for me to use as a starting point, the audience of the panel did however have some interesting points that may find their way (in my modified versions of them) into this discussion.

Now, Where the Wild Things Are, as I'm sure we are all aware, is a new adaptation of Maurice Sendak's classic - albeit controversial - children's book of the same title. The book and the film both concentrate around their shared protagonist, the boy Max, who in his quest to express himself most ardently finds that such self-expression affects not only himself but also the others in the world around him. He learns this lesson - and, one could argue, several others - in the course of his metaphorical - or, at least, illusory - journey to a land where comparatively large and menacing creatures, known collectively as the Wild Things, reside in both peace and unrest. Purely hedonistic, id-driven beings, they match Max in their more specialized personalities exactly, and Max as their elected sovereign initially takes pleasure in finally being a member of a community that upholds the same degree of insouciant expressiveness that he himself daily espouses (much to the chagrin of his largely off-screen, off-stage mother). However, as he himself witnesses with a more clarified and less biased viewpoint the ramifications of such no-holds-barred behavior on both himself and his compatriots at arms, he comes to recognize - if not cogently and explicitly - the valor of emotional responsibility, intelligence, and understanding. Having learned such non-trivial matters, Max then departs the journey, he no longer having a need of it, and returns to his home life, where having learned such lessons he, we are to expect, will lead a more compassionately relative, emotionally mature life. Such, in a metaphorical nut-shell, is the plot.

However, in the case of the film, such fails to be the whole story. Though Mr. Jonze and his co-screen-writer David Eggers flesh out the didactic tribulations of Max's journey with the Wild Things to touch on a more expansive view of social interactions and personal expression, the ending result feels didactic in its presentation whereas its source material does not; and, while didacticism in and of itself is not necessarily negative, in this particular instance and this particular adaptation, where natural developments and an organic sense of streaming consciousness must flow and supersede imposed structure and lineaments, such moralizing is a weighty problem. In spite of its positive intentions and Mr. Jonze's directorial history as that of a man capable of producing work of the highest orderless order, Where the Wild Things Are ultimately unfortunately fails to be such an organic tale as it would want to, need to, and have to be in order to be reach its own best expression.

Perhaps this failure is a result of Mr. Jonze's rigid stricture to the elements and the concise nature of Mr. Sendak's plot, since the film shines best in its addended extended prologue and epilogue, in which Mr. Jonze introduces his audience to Max, Max's mother, and the rest of Max's emotional world in a way that is as concise, rigorous, and ready as it is organic, moving, and beautiful. Festooned by Mr. Jonze's signature phrases of unstilted realism and succinct emotional truth, this introduction and its parallel conclusion ring truer to the intangible values of their source material than the plodding, probing, and stilted body of the film ever does.

That body, in trying not to fall short of the high bar set by its bookending logs, ends up reading more like an effectively sold, intellectual's perspective on the memories of "childhood" (the theoretical concept) than like the naturally grown and harvested prints of childhood now (lived as itself). For never in the body of the film does the camera-work ever really seem sure of itself, as it does in the introductory and conclusory bookends of the film; unsure, it only vacillates nervously between an objective, structured eye (that exists in this film only because otherwise the eye doesn't quite know how best to grasp what it's actually seeing) and the subjective, unformalized window that the film really needs. Likewise, never in the body does the screenplay ever really unburden itself of the task of "trying to accomplish something," as it does in the bookends; burdened, it only stumbles where it shouldn't and fails to find the footing and the freedom necessary to foment the entropic revelry that its self-professed endgame needs its action to be. And ultimately, while the art direction on the island of the Wild Things does consistently look tasteful and appealing, those body-based sets' spare minimalism speaks more to the contemporary propensities of art today than the timeless realities of a child immemorial.

Yet, somehow I do not blame Mr. Jonze much at all for these missteps, even though he was technically at the film's helm. Though perhaps I may be excusing him nepotistically, I find his mark on the material in the film that did work and not on the material that did not - primarily because of the fact that those parts that he himself added to the story (i. e., the prologue and the epilogue) did still register so meritoriously in their qualities. His choices there and even beyond there inarguably become the glue that keeps his ship afloat. That the young Max Records gave what I think to be a tremendous leading performance, fully carrying the weight of the film, was with no doubt with thanks to Mr. Jonze's dedication to his craft; that Karen O. & the Kids' and Carter Burwell's scores integrated so well amidst the action of the film - supplementing and accentuating but never replacing that action - was with no doubt with thanks to Mr. Jonze's eye for the music in his imagery and not for the use of the music as a magnifier alone; and even that the costumes, which as large, rough, hairy, and decidedly awkward pieces of the actors' equipments one could expect might well weigh down on the necessary buoyancy of the film, instead appear utterly natural and naturally mobile in their filmic surroundings is with no doubt with as many thanks to Mr. Jonze's hand as to the costume-designer's.

Yet, beyond these redeeming features - pleasant though they may be - Mr. Jonze's film still suffers and shows signs of its suffering. It grows weary, wears on, and then eliminates itself with maudlin charm and affection that, though maybe touching, earn little reward for integrity, quality, and appropriateness to this dramatic material. Though I am sorry to have to say it, Where the Wild Things Are deserves no more from me here than a

Grade: B-: in majority a trendy dilettante's retelling of an enduring neoclassical fairy tale, a retelling that in minority nevertheless preserves important qualities of the original.

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