Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Where The Wild Things Are - a film review

(There are Spoilers ahead, of course. And I apologize for the long windedness. The Cliff’s Notes version of this review is that overall, for me, the film was only pretty good, though extremely beautiful to look at. There. You can move your Reader along now.)

Christy and I finally got to go see Where The Wild Things Are a few weeks ago. We were pretty excited about it. How could you not be with that trailer? The Arcade Fire song, Wake Up, which is featured in the preview quickly became one of my favorite songs when it was released years ago and, despite being borderline melodramatic, the song captures the wistful regret of our lost inner-child. “Something filled up my heart with nothing. Someone told me not to cry. But now that I’m older my heart is colder, and I can see that it’s a lie. Children, wake up! Hold your mistake up, before they turn the summer into dust. If the children don’t grow up, our bodies get bigger but our hearts get torn up. We’re just a million little gods causing rainstorms, turning every good thing to rust. I guess we’ll just have to adjust.” See? The lyrics aren’t speaking to ten year-olds here. They are speaking to the dormant child within the adult who has forgotten how to dream and how to trust instinct and feeling. We age, we get calloused, we scab, and as a result we make the mistake of repressing the better nature of our inner-child. So, children, wake up! Hold your mistake up! Before it’s too late.

And that should have been clue number one that WTWTA was not going to be primarily a children’s movie (as it was marketed to be). We had planned to take our three-year-old, and after reading one review decided against it (thankfully). Visually the film is amazing. Spike Jonze gets such unique imagery in all his work and there are no false steps here in terms of cinematography (like I’m an expert, right?). The soundtrack, by Karen O, is marvelous, including a particularly touching rendition of the Daniel Johnston tune, "Worried Shoes." Spot on voice work from every single one of the Wild Things (James Gandolfini, Catherine O’Hara, Forrest Whittaker, Lauren Ambrose, Chris Cooper, Paul Dano). All nail it perfectly. Max himself (played by namesake Max Records) did a superb acting job as well. Catherine Keener is golden in her role, and for me her interactions with Max were so meaningful they overshadowed every other relationship in the film. There is one little moment in particular when Max is camped out on his back underneath his Mom’s desk at home. She is making phone calls and by all accounts seems to be an expert at juggling both motherly and professional duties. Max isn’t begging for her attention at this point, but he wants it. He reaches over to her foot and tenderly tugs on the toe of her nylon and they exchange this mother-son look that carries all the humanity you might ever hope to catch on film. Yet in the end the film lacked enough of these moments, and it’s been hard to put my finger on exactly why.

I liked the film, but I expected to love it, and I did not love it. The film’s setup was terrific. From the opening scene until Max gets to where the wild things are (and even for a little while afterwards) the film is strong. But then I went over some emotional drop off, and couldn't ever quite return. My best guess is that the writing was a bit too cryptic, and some of the metaphor was a bit too heavy handed. Christy told me on the way home (and I agree with her) that she couldn’t stop asking herself “What does that symbolize?” which ultimately became distracting. On NPR Spike Jonze mentioned that every one of the Wild Things represented an emotion. Emotions, especially for kids, are tricky to deal with and a lot of my frustration in the movie stemmed from seeing Max deal with his emotions just as one might expect—like a child. Symbolically, his relationships with these wild emotions make sense, but the balancing act on screen doesn’t play out so graceful (and no doubt certainly wasn’t meant to, yet that doesn’t invalidate my frustration). The owls “Bob and Terry” are also a bit of a mystery. My guess is that they were a clunky similitude of the real life relationships that Max doesn’t understand, or perhaps doesn’t want to understand (ie: his mother’s boyfriend, bosses, and his sister’s friends). The thrust of the middle section of the movie deals with Max's efforts in this dream, wherein he is a king with the ability to do whatever he wants, to construct (literally) a perfect world. The old Utopia concept. But he ultimately fails, and after all hell breaks loose with the Wild Things he comes to the very real-life conclusion that no such world is possible. It is the other side of the “Wake Up” dichotomy -- that in our inevitable coming-of-age we wake up to the fact that life is hard, and death is real, and there are lots of hard questions and nauseatingly few easy answers. Interestingly enough, when Max discovers this he is not only better equipped to deal with his “real world” but he actually longs to go back. I felt that the ending, much like the beginning, was strong.

My little 3 year old, Gus, loves the book. When we read it together, there are certain phrases that I’m allowed to say, and certain phrases that only he is allowed to say. When Max is being sassy with his mom he lays down a threat, “I’ll eat you up”. Gus delivers the line with sinister eyebrows and a smile. Later on we get to my favorite, and most telling moment in our little exchange. Max’s reign as king has come to and end and it is time for him to go. His threat from the beginning of the book now morphs into an expression of compassion and longing. I let it out like a sad wild thing, “Please don’t go, we’ll eat you up, we love you so”. And Gus delivers Max’s reply with a curt, matter-of-fact, and almost hopeful, “No.”

Kids are resilient and adaptable (“I guess we’ll just have to adjust”). They need to be loved like all the world, and it should be shown and expressed often. But they don’t need to be pandered to. And adults certainly don’t either. WTWTA, despite its hangups, does not do that.


Joe said...

I'm going to see the movie on Sat. Then I'll check back in and see if I concur with your review. Ahem . . .

mfranti said...

Great review, Les.

thanks for taking my suggestion too.

Joe said...

Alright, I have to say I agree very much with your review. The movie inspired awe and a few laughs and seemed to be lacking nothing in the meaningful conflict department . . . but was definitely missing a little something. I'm sure Jonze and Eggers would say something about not conforming to stupid bourgeois audiences and their saccharine expectations, art doesn't compromise, it's a metaphor, etc. And in a way, I can buy into that. I like a pseudo-kids movie that doesn't pander to our easiest emotions.

But aside from the marvel and wonder of it all, which was worth every penny of my admission, the wild things themselves failed to capture me. It wasn't the voice talents (perfect, as you said) or the writing per se, but it was the decision maybe to totally remove any context or history from their characters. We get vague hints and allusions to what came before Max arrived and what may come afterwards, but in a narrative work of art of this length, I think you owe the audience a bit more than the idea than that. I think I understand that the wild things are like kids, kids don't think about things like adults do, they don't understand their own feelings and actions, etc. etc. However, like you said, I just didn't love it.

Still, I liked it very much, and might even consider watching it again, even though it was a bit of a downer. If I try to ignore the larger arc of the story and just live in the moment of each scene, it is pretty brilliant. Maybe that's exactly what the makers wanted . . .