Sunday, February 28, 2010

Bonus video review: "Where the Wild Things Are"

It's rare when the video extras for a major release have disappointed me as much as those for "Where the Wild Things Are."

Usually, I just chalk it up to laziness or complacency on the part of the studio. But in this case, I think the lack of more robust participation by the filmmakers is a real detriment to the video.

This difficult, personal and occasionally brilliant film from director Spike Jonze was much more than a screen translation of Maurice Sendak's seminal 1963 children's book about a boy who goes to live on an island full of (mostly) friendly monsters.

It was a journey guided by the filmmaker behind the fuzzy realities of "Adaptation" and "Being John Malkovich" to explore the inner life of a child. It was not so much a movie for or about children, but an expression of what it's like to be a child, aimed squarely at grown-ups who have forgotten.

A video release of this film cries out for the interaction and participation of the principle creators -- Jonze and his screenwriting partner Dave Eggers. A commentary track would be a treasure of insight as they told us what they were thinking about when they brought Sendak's world to life.

Sadly, none of these are included on either the single-disc DVD or Blu-ray/DVD combo pack.

The DVD's extra features are limited to four Webisodes totalling 13 minutes of video footage from the production. Mostly they're just rambling bits about getting dogs to bark or pranks. The only interesting tidbit is that Jonze had many of the principle crew bring their children to the set so star Max Records would feel like he was in a playground, instead of working for adults.

The Blu-ray version has four more short Webisodes, and a 23-minute film version of another Sendak book, "Higglety Pigglety Pop! Or There Must Be More to Life." It's a delightful combination of puppetry, animation and live action about a dog who runs away from home in order to get experience, taking on a job as a nanny to a crying baby, with a hungry lion waiting in the basement if she fails to get the baby to eat.

Although I appreciated the inclusion of the other film -- directed by the Oscar-nominated team of Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski -- it doesn't add anything to our experience of "Where the Wild Things Are."

Perhaps Jonze is of the "I let my films speak for themselves" school of thought. That's his choice. But filmmakers who attempt such a bold, personal vision -- and fail to connect with audiences, according to the film's box office tallies -- would do well to offer more of themselves, about why they wanted to make this movie, about the choices they made, and what it means to them.

I, for one, would like to hear Jonze talk about why he decided to abandon the faces of the giant puppets of the monsters created by the Jim Henson workshop in favor of computer-animated ones. How about a comparison of the unadorned puppet heads split-screened with the final version? What about a featurette on envisioning and constructing the monsters' strangely beautiful castle?

These are just a handful of things that could have been, and should have been, included with "Where the Wild Things Are" to allow its fans to revisit, explore it more deeply, and contemplate what the cinematic experience meant to them.

Movie: 3.5 stars
Extras: 1.5 stars

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