October 24, 2009

Review: Where the Childhood Is – 'Where the Wild Things Are'

"Please don't go. We'll eat you up. We love you so."


After many years of production, delays, and feverish anticipation, director Spike Jonze and his vision of Maurice Sendak's classic children's tale Where the Wild Things Are finally come to theatres. The film is a very clear, precise, and deliberate interpretation of a very specific experience in childhood.

No one really seems to know who exactly the film is aimed towards. I would say parents and young adults. It certainly is in no way for children specifically. Most children will likely be bored and slightly frightened by the film's mature themes and adult reflections and meditations on anger, divorce, and loneliness. Jonze has crafted an energetic, curious reflection on the isolation as he mediates on the themes of loneliness in childhood, the wonder of youth, and reckless imagination. This is a mature, thoughtful exploration of childhood told from the point of view of a child but with the subtle insight and foresight of an adult or parent.

This is a very deep, artistic look into the gentle insecurities and fallacies of childhood. Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers have crafted a cerebral, action adventure script that sometimes feels lost and goes into strange places that often feel cold, sterile, or messy. Max, the protagonist, struggles with being a "king" and having his way. He learns a lesson in being a child and a respect for authority.

The film rests entirely on the shoulders of young actor Max Records playing the role of his namesake. Your enjoyment and appreciation of it depends on your sympathy with Max and understanding his childhood nature. In the film, Max is at the cusp of leaving the first and most pure stage of childhood, as he slowly feels the painful aches of growing up as a bright but troubled boy searching for love in a fractured family life. Max's portrayal feels intensely personal as Jonze was clearly inspired by his own boyhood.

Max is such an understandable, sympathetic character in all his curiousity and wonder as he acts out badly due to his loneliness and frustration. He learns and slowly comes to appreciate and understand the world around him and you watch as he begins the pains of growing up. In fits of anger, Max is prone to give into his wild, animalistic urges and is punished for it but continues to act out. He is not getting what he needs in terms of nurturing and supervision as his single mother struggles to juggle her commitments. Through Max's actions, he learns that his behaviour has consequences and he has the ability to inflict pain on the ones he loves. Records, given careful direction, is stellar and carries the film admirably playing a very precocious, sympathetic kid with nuanced performance.

As Max escapes to a fantasy land of wonder and excitement, so starts a fable about the nature of childhood, growing up, and the cruelty of being young. What Jonze has done so well is mold and merge the sensibilities of a child with the maturity and direction of an adult. Early scenes that depict Max's energy and fun have a messy, erratic feel that fits perfectly. Soon, Max rushes off into the wild and the power of his imagination show the possibilities of a child but the artistry of an adult. The film narrative mirrors the missteps and lack of focus of childhood wonder and imagination as it meanders and sort of takes strange, messy side steps. I actually preferred the care and detail of the early and end scenes that took place in the real world with Max and his family and found myself slightly bored by some of the lengthy fantasy sequences with the wild things. The first act is brilliant and truly captures the subtle relationships and dynamics of a young, somewhat fractured family home life.



The wild thing characters are magical, seamless, vivid portraits of childhood archetypes mirrored into monstrous forms. There are parallel versions of playground misfits. Jonze has fleshed out the wild things and given them all unique characteristics and traits taken from Max's personality. The voice acting is quite excellent, particularly the haunting voice of James Gandolfini (The Sopranos) as the imposing Carol and Lauren Ambrose (Six Feet Under) as the motherly KW.

The creatures are mesmerizing and provide a gentle, unpredictable feeling. As the film advances, elements of the wild things become more frightening and unclear. Each wild thing represents a visceral, animal-like element of Max's childhood psyche. Jonze's insistence that the wild things be portrayed by actors in suits with CGI faces was a bold, inventive, and successful choice as they come across and fully realized characters and not distracting, gimmicky special effects. The music by Karen O is uniformly excellent and provides a playful, reflective tone to the movement in the story.

Where the Wild Things Are is beautifully photographed and framed with a sepia-like tone. The CGI, special effects and action provide a child-like entertainment and feel of youthful invincibility but convey a constant sense of danger and wondrous realism in the fantasy setting. The way Jonze has expanded and fleshed out a feature length film with dynamic characters, a compelling story, and narrative is quite remarkable compared to a very short picture book consisting just a few short sentences. It, in of itself, is a work of pure imagination and delight. Visually arresting, Jonze shows his incredible eye for imagery with bold and breathtaking landscapes and imaginative sequences of beauty and clear vision. The film never dips into sentimentality or contrivance. It is starkly messy, genuine and wholly original. The aggressive nature of the film and urgency draws you into the story.

I am not entirely sure what Jonze's aims or goals were with the film and some scenes bear mixed sometimes unusual results but there is no denying the definitive artistry with which Jonze has molded his adaptation. This is truly a remarkable piece of art but upon watching fantasy sequences, I was left cold and detached without a constant that let me follow the film but I have a suspicion that is exactly the point. The fantasy elements did not feel completely grounded but I gather that was the idea given the lack of an adult presence in those scenes. I found the artistry and themes in the film to be brilliant at times but I felt a distance and barrier to it. I imagine this film and its appreciation to grow but cannot help feel an emotional detachment from the journey which seems very thought out and thorough. The experience would most likely benefit from the wisdom of parenthood and childcare.

In all of this, Where the Wild Things Are "feels like a a grown-up story told by kids". It is a rather unconventional children's story for adults from the mind that brought you films like Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, works full of neuroses, harshness, sensitivity and thoughtfulness. The film is a true, unabashed work of careful artistry that propels you into the more pure innocent mind of a child while maintaining the insight and reason of an adult. At the end of the day, Max's conceptualization of the world through fantasies of wild things helps him understand better his own loneliness and struggles while reflecting unselfishly on his surrounding and the people around him.

"You're his family. It's hard being a family."
Jonze and company with precise artfulness have really explored the nature of childhood in a remarkably honest and beautiful way. Jonze has definitely completed an entirely honest, unique, insightful look into the mind of a child exploring the anger and innocence within in a completely compelling way. However, I cannot ignore this feeling that there is something missing or slightly lacking. I felt the theatre not knowing exactly what I saw, but I do know that Where the Wild Things Are if nothing else is truly a daring work from a true artist.


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