Where the Wild Things Are

December 12, 2009

If you see enough and read enough about films, there’s a tendency to pigeonhole everything into a genre, be it as broad as ‘drama’ or as specific as ‘neo-noir’ or ‘mumblecore’.  This practice is fine as far as it goes, as knowing the history of a particular type of film and understanding its basic conceits helps with expectations and, to some extent, enjoyment level.  Take westerns, for instance.  You can watch any Leone film, or maybe Eastwood’s Unforgiven, and knowing the tropes, you can recognize what is there, what is subverted, and what is being done to comment on what has come before.  The downside of this whole approach to cinema is that every so often a film comes along that explodes its genre that you really don’t know where it’s coming from or how to take it.  I don’t mean this in the sense of American Dreamz, which is both audaciously ridiculous and so wildly miscalculated that it turns into an interesting misfire.  I mean this in the sense that the aim of the filmmakers to work in an area is obvious, and they succeed at getting across what they want to get across, and yet you’re still not sure how you’re meant to take it.

Where the Wild Things Are has been in development for a long time, and the hell we read about as it was happening probably wasn’t has bad as what actually happened.  $80-100 million dollars later, and Spike Jones has what must have been the film he wanted to make.  Co-written by Dave Eggers, they have adapted Maurice Sendak’s beloved children’s book, stretching out its ten or so sentences of plotless joy to a 100-minute film, a herculean effort in its own right that can’t help but bring back images of Nicolas Cage in Jones’ Adaptation.  As is de rigueur these days, they’ve gone the psychological route, eschewing the temptation to plug in some sort of hero’s quest for an examination of a child’s psyche through his fantasy world.  Max (Max Records) is a somewhat troubled boy, whose sister is growing up and whose mother (Catherine Keener) is moving on from their absent father.  When she ignores his pleas to see his newly constructed fort in favour of her date (Mark Ruffalo), he throws a tantrum, bites her, and runs off into the night.  Here he crosses into his fantasy, taking a boat out to sea until he finds an island populated by monsters.

The opening scenes in the real world are absolutely brilliant, and not to take away from the pleasures to be found later, they’re the best thing about the movie.  The quick passage from loneliness, to childhood imagination, to thrills and excitement, to disappointment and back to loneliness again are beautifully done.  Filled with rage after a perceived slight from his sister, he goes about wrecking her room and tracking snow onto her bed, and the moment where he suddenly stops and you can see his immediate regret showcases a better understanding of children then pretty much every other kid’s film released in the past several years.  So much character is established, and so much identifiable life is evoked with so little in the opening that it must stand as one of the best and most economical uses of cinematic expository shorthand this year.

Everything settles down a bit when he meets the monsters and becomes their king, and here is where things probably became problematic for a lot of viewers.  First of all, there is virtually no narrative in the traditional sense.  There is no mission to accomplish, no journey to take.  Most of the film consists of a series of set pieces sprung from Max’s imagination.  He wants to help destroy their huts, or he wants them to build a massive fort, or he wants them to pile on each other and go to sleep, and that’s what happens.  Without a point-A-to-point-B structure, it might be difficult for anyone, adults or children, to find something to hold onto.  Aside from the mentioned events, very little actually happens, but in that time each of the characters establish themselves to some degree or another, and soon enough we realize that they’re each a projection of aspects Max’s psyche and the loved ones in his life.  Nothing is truly resolved as far as the monsters and their many, many issues, but by the end Max has a better understanding of himself and his family and what he and they are going through.  This is basically a film about a boy who uses his fantasies for self-examination, and though I can see why people might have a problem with that, I for one do not.  It actually worked very well for me, both in idea and execution.  Very few characters could be pointed out as a representation of a real person in his life (as opposed to, say, The Wizard of Oz) or a straight version of himself, but instead they’re more complex than that.  His neuroses and characteristics are spread across all the monsters, and when he finally stops running away from himself into escapist larks and confronts them, he understands himself.

I’m fine with all of that.  I understand that a lot of people aren’t, and I can see where they’re coming from.  I can also see that this film is, in many ways, relentlessly bleak for a kid’s film.  All attempts and fun and games end in disaster, whether it be a falling out amongst the group or physical harm to a participant.  Childhood, for me at least, wasn’t this rough, and I’ve come to believe that children have an incredible ability to bounce back from traumas great and small with a speed that leaves them the envy of adults.  However, I take that this isn’t meant to be an all-encompassing microcosm of childhood, but rather how one kid copes with his own specific problems, some stated and others not (I imagine that whatever happened with his father plays a big role).  It sets out a specific purpose, and it tackles it head on.  And beautifully, I should add, because this is one of the most visually stunning films you’re likely to see this year.  The monsters are gorgeous, from their actual bodysuits to their CGI faces, which feature some of the most expressive eyes you’ll find in an industry that has a notably spotty track record with the windows to the soul.  The production design, the sets, and the cinematography are all top-rate.  Instead of your average film’s idea of the bright colours of a child’s fantasy, this film opts for rather drab but stunning browns and blues, which works rather well with the tone of the piece.  Jones and his artisans are the type that use their money and effects for beauty and purpose rather than pure spectacle.  I’d also like to add that I’m impressed with Max Records and the dialogue he’s given, as it is rare to find a 9 year old that actually sounds like a 9 year old, and even on a journey of self-examination he never sounds like a wise sage well beyond his years.  Points against the film lie in the soundtrack, which features songs by Karen O and a score by Carter Burwell that is so self-consciously twee and precious that it is at times distracting.

All of this brings us back to the original point.  How are we supposed to take this film or, perhaps more importantly, who is mean to?  Most kid’s films feature basic storytelling formulas exploited to varying degrees of quality.  They can be extremely dumb, full of pandering jokes that cause the adults to groan (most kids films, honestly) or they can be smart and witty with humour that can be appreciated by the whole family as well as themes that are far more complex and interesting than one might expect (Up and The Iron Giant come to mind).  Still, they follow those basic formulas that allow everyone to grab onto something.  If the kids don’t understand every level of what’s going on, then fine, there’s still that formula to keep them entertained.  So how does this film work with their demographic?  I know it seems like a soulless, corporate question to ask, but I find it interesting.  I think I understand what Jones and Eggers wanted to achieve here, but will a 9 year old?  Were we that self-aware at that age?  How much is this film made by older, intelligent guys looking back on their younger selves and how much is it older, intelligent guys trying to actually understand the perspective of their younger selves?  The trailers were beautiful and evocative, scored by a reworking of an Arcade Fire song (it also featuring some thrilling graphic matches) , which leads me to believe that the actual audience will be hipsters, either hankering for nostalgia or just fans of the aesthetic.  I went to a 3:30pm screening on opening day, and I only noticed two children in a three-quarters full cinema.  When writing about Fantastic Mr. Fox, I noted that it was awfully adult in its humour, and questioned who the target audience was.  No matter what, that film was trying to be a kid’s movie.  I’m not so sure about this one.  This seems to be a film that would be perfect for a 9 year old to put on at night and curl up under a duvet with when depression hits, but to be honest, I don’t think 9 year olds are as (being polite) introspective or (being blunt) emo as that.

-M

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