Monday, 27 December 2010

Where The Wild Things Are


Spike Jonz, 2009, USA

A work of staggering furry near-genius.
Spike Jonze’s adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s much loved and brief book engages with the unnerving freedom and aggression of Max’s free-fall play from the very first minutes, as he chases the dog around the house, like a delirious hunter. The handheld camera follows and jumps around with him and the effect is dizzying, liberating, and just a bit scary. This opening and the following drama surrounding Max’s snow fort capture the ups and downs of play effortlessly ~ play makes you high and when it doesn’t go as you want it to, it’s throws you low. The magic of Jonze’s film is that it never, ever losing sight of the pell-mell violence behind rough-and-tumble play: at any minute, it might go horribly wrong.
The dog is okay, but Max’s snow fort does not fare so well, and neither does his mother. In a tantrum of attention-seeking and jealousy, Max bites her and, apparently horrified at his own behaviour, sets out on his own odyssey from the house to sort himself out. Even the journey to the island of the Wild Things is fraught with peril: the waves threaten to toss his little boat and drown him. The dangers of Max’s world all seem very real and likely, all larger than life and exaggerated. Upon meeting the Wild Things, his friendship with them and Max’s hold on them by proclaiming himself a king always seems precariously ready to end up in something terrible due to any of their unpredictable mood-swings and penchant for aggressive play. The Wild Things themselves embody a whole host of difficult, affectionate and fraught relationships: immediate family; a gang of new friends; various facets of Max’s own personality. The Wild Thing Carol seems most to represent Max’s temper and destructiveness as well as an immature father-figure. Has a bunch of giant puppets ever been so dangerously temperamental and morose? They are all like Sesame Street muppets in need of therapy and anti-depressants. As special effects The Wild Things are a mixture of real costumes and CGI tweaking, and are remarkable and scary in their size and physicality. They smash, they wreck, they tear chunks out of trees, they throw one another around without sense of consequence.
It is like a grunge film for pre-teens. The soundtrack by Karen O and the Kids amplifies this feeling: it surely won’t be to everyone’s taste but it’s an often jubilant, crash, strum and shout accompaniment that relates well to Max’s energy. The work of the voice actors, all seasoned professionals, is also exemplary: James Gandolfini especially uses his very nasally, snorty and sighing voice to excellent effect for Carol’s sulkiness. Jonz captures Max Records as Max at just the right moment, encouraging a wonderfully open, fluid performance. It is free from the brattishness and knowingness of so many trained American child performers. When he declares nonchalantly “I have no plans to eat anyone today,” it is irresistible. He throws both a great temper and confused remorse, both totally in thrall to and nervous of the monster-sized character traits around him. Max maybe isn’t the all-scowling tearaway of Sendak’s book, but he is a more fully rounded, conflicted, variable character: by turns needy, volatile, sweet, unthinkingly mean, et cetera. He is as dwarfed by the intimidating moods-wings, judgements and needs of the Wild Things as he is by his need to play and to be the kind and the centre of attention. Rarely does Jonz miss the child’s eye perspective and feel of his surroundings: even when the monsters bundle into a mountain on top of him, the dangerous claustrophobia is tangible and, wonderfully, Jonz turns the bundle into tunnels that Max crawls through. Just like a fort.

Jonz and Eggers draw a clear line between the troubling relationship between creativity and destructiveness: it is not mistake that Carol is the most artistic. Where does one end and the other begin? When does play become dangerous? Where does neediness end and selfishness take over? How, indeed, to find the compromise between all these things? In the end, Max has worked as much out as he can for himself and, as he leaves to go home and start over afresh and, we would hope, wiser and more controlled, all that is left is a gorgeous, plaintive, primal howl. Well, until Max goes home barking at the dogs in the yards. And he is still wearing the wolf suit. You have to stay yourself, after all.
A farewell love letter to temper tantrums.
A film for kids that treats a kid’s irrational temper with respect.


Philip said...

Thanks very much for this - I don't know the book at all (though I've heard of it, of course) and picked up the DVD more or less on a whim largely activated by reading this review. It's a lovely film - Time Bandits remade by the Banana Splits, charming and touching and as mad as a bagful of ferrets. The very last shot is one of the best I've seen recently, rivalling that of The Signal for understated poignancy.

Buck Theorem said...

Hi Philip,

I am glad if I helped inspire you to take a look at this film, and that you enjoyed it. I do think it is a bit unique and special, and quite uncompromising too.

My friend and I talk often about how unique it is and how it leaves us with a very strange mood after watching. I think the strange mood and aftertaste comes from the fact that film taps into the very particular strain of melancholy that comes with childhood, plus the anxieties about relationships. Films rarely do this without condescending to some degree. The film reminds us of the sensations of those uncomfortable moods and the bruised melancholy. Not many get that right and throw in giant monsters too.

"Time Bandits" remade by the Banana Splits... I love that!

Philip said...

I also liked the absence of Meaningful Discussions and Moral Lessons, despite the way Max's dilemmas in the monster world echo his situation at home. Even lines like "I wish you guys had a mom" manage to avoid the usual syrup overdose because they're just more pieces of the (as you point out, very accurate) portrayal of childhood consciousness in all its astounding onedamnthingafteranotherness. The only lesson Max definitely learned was the unusually sophisticated one that even the king can't please all of the monsters all of the time, which should help him through life a damn sight better than the more widespread cinematic idea that Lurve is a Good Thing.