Loading...

Beasty Boy: Where the Wild Things Are 

... according to Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers

Wednesday, Oct 14 2009
Comments

Tinkering with a sacred cultural totem can be riskier business than nuclear fission. Just ask Peter Sellars, the visionary stage director whose critically savaged recent Public Theater production of Othello — with its postracial casting, repurposed characters and a mumbling Philip Seymour Hoffman as Iago — was considerably more compelling in theory than as a piece of stagecraft. Giving themselves no less formidable a challenge, director Spike Jonze and novelist Dave Eggers set out to make a feature-length film version of Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak’s nearly wordless 1963 children’s book about Max, a mischievous boy, sent to bed without his supper, whose id decamps for a mysterious island populated by the giant, mischief-making beasties of the title. Some revisionist criticism (like Bruce Handy’s recent New York Times essay) notwithstanding, Sendak’s book remains, to quote a sage colleague, “one of those perfect things” — a primal scream of sorts that, whether you fully appreciate it at 6 or not until 60, captures with lyrical precision the impotent rage of a willful child in the face of parental authority. So perfect, in fact, that the very idea of a Wild Things movie, which has been kicking around for more than a decade, seemed from the start folly.

As it happens, Jonze and Eggers have added a lot without betraying a thing. Like Jonze’s previous Adaptation and its freely associative relationship to Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, Where the Wild Things Are is another small miracle of literary adaptation, which aims to capture the spirit rather than the letter of its source material. The movie’s Max (12-year-old newcomer Max Records, who gives one of the most naturalistic child performances I’ve ever seen in a movie) is now a child of divorce, with a loving-but-harried single mom (Catherine Keener) and a teenage sister who’d rather hang out with her cool, older friends than pay attention to her dorky kid brother. Early in the film, those bigger kids leave Max winded and teary-eyed after pummeling him in a driveway snowball fight — a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day that only gets worse when Mom invites to dinner her new boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo), the strange man glimpsed by Max from a cautious distance, an obvious intruder into his domain. Whatever is a boy to do under such circumstances but don his beloved wolf costume and throw the mother of all temper tantrums? “I didn’t set out to make a children’s movie. I set out to make a movie about childhood,” Jonze says in the Where the Wild Things Are press notes. What he’s ended up with strikes me as one of the most empathic and psychologically acute of all movies about childhood — a Wizard of Oz for the dysfunctional-family era.

Just as the characters of Jonze’s Being John Malkovich slipped inside the skin of the erudite character actor, Jonze and Eggers here climb into the head of a preteen boy at once frightened by the world around him and eager to master it. So Max’s solo boat ride to the isle of the wild things is markedly more perilous than Dorothy’s cyclone, the landscape he finds there more rugged than enchanted. This parallel world (the inspired work of production designer K.K. Barrett and cinematographer Lance Acord) has all the weight and textures of the real one, a reminder that so much of children’s make-believe begins with the transfiguration of ordinary objects — a cardboard box that becomes a fort, a tinfoil suit of armor. So too does Jonze, who rose to prominence as a director of skateboard videos and the co-creator of MTV’s Jackass, remember well the terror and euphoria of boyhood tests of physical mettle, making Where the Wild Things Are, among other things, a welcome salvo against the modern-day “helicopter” parents who prefer that their kids accrue cellulite in front of a TV rather than do anything by which “they might get hurt.” The “wild rumpus” Max initiates upon being crowned king of the wild things is, in Jonze’s version, a body-slamming smack down in which the creatures immolate their own nests (using their torsos as bulldozers), while a later dirt-clod battle (which recalls the epic sandlot war from Frank Borzage’s masterful 1934 No Greater Glory) leaves behind many bruised limbs and even more bruised egos — this time with Max himself doing much of the bruising.

click to enlarge COURTESY WARNER BROTHERS - Group therapy session
  • Courtesy Warner Brothers
  • Group therapy session

Related Stories

The look of the wild things has been closely modeled on Sendak’s original illustrations, with high-tech CGI faces atop wonderfully low-fi fur and papier-mâché bodies. But in by far their most audacious (and potentially disastrous) stroke, Jonze and Eggers have given each of the creatures a name and a distinct personality — even put words in their mouths. The horned, horizontally striped beast featured prominently in the book has become Carol (voiced with disarming delicacy by James Gandolfini), a gentle giant at once Max’s disciple and alter ego. Straggly-haired KW (Lauren Ambrose), the object of Carol’s inarticulate affection, is, like Max’s sister, a moody adolescent who strays from the group to spend time with her new best friends. Chronically gloomy, griping Judith (Catherine O’Hara) accuses King Max of playing favorites, especially when the film arrives at that most dreaded of schoolyard rituals — picking teams for an athletic contest. So Max trades one dysfunctional family for another and, before long, finds himself in the position every child, particularly those of divorce, fears most: being the one responsible for holding the family together. For a while, Max placates everyone with the promise that his invisible “sadness shield” will guard them all from hurt feelings, but even it proves ill-equipped to stop the onward march of time that is turning the world of the wild things — and everything in it — to dust.

This may sound like heady stuff for kids, and it is, but no more so than what actually goes through kids’ heads as they feel their way through the world. “It’s hard being a family,” says KW late in the film — harder still being 9 or 10 and learning that parents are imperfect people, that friendships are fleeting, and that nothing lasts forever. Like Sendak before him, Jonze seizes upon that uncertain moment and transforms it into art.

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE | Directed by SPIKE JONZE | Written by JONZE and DAVE EGGERS, based on the book by MAURICE SENDAK | Produced by TOM HANKS, GARY GOETZMAN, JOHN CARLS, SENDAK and VINCENT LANDAY | Warner Bros. | Citywide

Reach the writer at sfoundas@villagevoice.com

Related Content

Now Showing

  1. Wed 16
  2. Thu 17
  3. Fri 18
  4. Sat 19
  5. Sun 20
  6. Mon 21
  7. Tue 22

    Find capsule reviews, showtimes & tickets for all films in town.

    Sponsored by Fandor

Box Office

Scores provided by Rotten Tomatoes

Join My Voice Nation for free stuff, concert and dining info & more!

Slideshows

  • Nicolas Cage's 10 Best Movie Roles
    As video-on-demand continues to become the preferred route of distribution for a certain kind of independent film, much is being made of Nicolas Cage's willingness to slum for a paycheck, with recent examples including already-forgotten, small-screen-friendly items like Seeking Justice, Trespass, Stolen, and The Frozen Ground. (His character names in these projects -- Will Gerard, Kyle Miller, Will Montgomery, and Jack Halcombe -- are as interchangeable as the titles of the films.) Aside from citing the obvious appeal of doing work for money (a defense Cage himself brought up in a recent interview with The Guardian), it's also possible to back Cage by acknowledging the consistency with which he's taken on "serious" roles over the years.

    David Gordon Green's Joe, which hits limited release this weekend (more details on that here), marks the latest instance of this trend, with Cage giving a reportedly subdued performance as an ex-con named Joe Ransom. In that spirit, we've put together a rundown of some of the actor's finest performances, all of which serve as proof that, though his over-the-top inclinations may make for a side-splitting YouTube compilation, Cage has amassed a career that few contemporary actors can equal. This list is hardly airtight in its exclusivity, so a few honorable mentions ought to go out to a pair of Cage's deliriously uneven auteur collaborations (David Lynch's Wild at Heart, Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes), 1983's Valley Girl, 1987's Moonstruck, and Alex Proyas's Knowing (a favorite of the late Roger Ebert).

    --Danny King
  • Ten Enduring Conspiracy Thrillers
    With the approaching release this week of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, many critics, including L.A. Weekly’s own Amy Nicholson, have noted the film’s similarities (starting with the obvious: Robert Redford) to the string of conspiracy thrillers that dominated American cinema during the 1970s. With that in mind, we’ve compiled a list of ten of the most enduring entries in the genre -- most of them coming from the ‘70s, but with a few early-‘80s holdouts added in for good measure. This is by no means an exclusive list, and more recent films like Roger Donaldson’s No Way Out (1987), Jacques Rivette’s Secret Defense (1998), Tony Scott’s Enemy of the State (1998), Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana (2005), and Redford’s own The Company You Keep (2012) speak to how well the genre has sustained itself over time. Words by Danny King.
  • Behind the Scenes of Muppets Most Wanted
    "The endurance of the Muppets isn't just the result of the creative skills of Henson and collaborators like Frank Oz, or of smart business decisions, or of sheer dumb luck," writes this paper's film critic Stephanie Zacharek in her review of Muppets Most Wanted. "It's simply that the Muppets are just ever so slightly, or maybe even totally, mad. Man, woman, child: Who can resist them? Even TV-watching cats are drawn to their frisky hippety-hopping and flutey, gravely, squeaky, squawky voices." Go behind the scenes with the hippety-hopping Muppets with these images.

    Read our full Muppets Most Wanted movie review.

Now Trending