Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Review: Where the Wild Things Are"

"Where the Wild Things Are" is one of the best movies I've seen at evoking what it's like to be a small child: the anger, the stubbornness, the neediness and the absolute, unlimited joy. Whether it's actually a movie for kids is another matter.

In adapting the iconic 1963 children's book by Maurice Sendak, director Spike Jonze undertakes his greatest flight of fancy -- and that's saying something for the filmmaker behind the loopy, distorted realities of "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation."

In adapting the story for film (along with fellow screenwriter Dave Eggers), Jonze necessarily had to use Sendak's book, which measures just a few dozen words, as a mere jumping-off point.

The book had the barest sketch of a plot: A boy Max is put to bed without supper for misbehaving, and his room turns into a jungle with an ocean that he sails across to an island filled with scary "wild things." He declares himself king of the beasts, and after a night filled with a "wild rumpus," he grows homesick and returns from whence he came.

In Jonze's version, the island of monsters becomes a playground where Max (a smashing Max Records) can hash out his problems, like anger (mostly at his parents' separation) and loneliness. The wild things -- visually distinctive but nameless in the book -- take on separate aspects of the boy's personality or emotions.

The monsters are a revelation, closely mirroring Sendak's illustrations while boasting an earthy, grubby immediacy. They were created by puppeteers from Jim Henson's company wearing giant suits. The faces were supposed to be mechanical, but Jonze replaced them with computer-generated animation after principal photography -- a wise move, based on how incredibly expressive the results are.

At first glance, it might seem that Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini) and KW (Lauren Ambrose) are supposed to represent Max's parents, with an unspoken hostility lying between them, fueled by KW's leaving the group to hang out with other island denizens.

But the wild things are just children, or at least behave like one. They represent the way children think and feel. At first hesitant around the strange boy in the wolf suit who claims to have special powers, they embrace him as their king. But soon, hostility and animosity creep in, and some cliques are formed.

I would not have thought Gandolfini, with his gravelly tough guy rasp, would make a very good voice actor, but he turns Carol into an intriguing figure, at times petulant and resentful, and other times gregarious and generous of spirit.

When Carol tells the boy, "You are the owner of this world," we feel his heart leap at the paternal tone. But after a terrible act of violence -- which may frighten younger audience members -- KW likens Carol's misbehavior to Max's: "He only makes it harder ... and it's hard enough already."

I could go on and on about this movie. "Where the Wild Things Are" is a very personal experience, less about an audience than a one-on-one connection between the film and each viewer. Because the wild things, partly good and partly bad, are inside every one of us. The child must discover them in order to grow up enough to master them.

3.5 stars

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