Sunday, December 13, 2009

Review - Where the Wild Things Are

Can you make a feature film out of a children's book that tells its slim story in less than forty pages, using only ten sentences of dialogue in the process? It's possible, sure, but maybe I should change the first word of that question to Should rather than Can. Not every work of literature needs a cinematic adaptation, and Maurice Sendak's seminal Where the Wild Things Are – which has delighted generations of kids thanks to the simplicity of its storytelling, its dark undertones, and the beauty of its images – has spent almost two decades being pushed and pulled through the Hollywood machine, as various parties tried to find some way of translating the magic to the screen. This poisoned chalice eventually fell to Spike Jonze, who began working with novelist Dave Eggers on the screenplay in 2005. Four years and $100 million later, the film has finally limped into cinemas bearing the scars of a deeply troubled production. There is little magic to be found here; the whole thing just feels so terribly tired.

The deflating disappointment of
Where the Wild Things Are rather crept up on me, as the opening sets the scene perfectly. There's a painful honesty to the sight of 10 year-old Max (newcomer Max Records) playing alone in the snow, being ignored by his sister and left in tears when a group of older kids gang up on him. With his intimate, handheld camerawork, Jonze captures the loneliness, the fear, and the need of a parent's embrace that defines so much of our childhood's most emotionally turbulent passages. It's a brilliant and affecting sequence, as is the subsequent scene in which Max is comforted by his mother (Catherine Keener), who is herself struggling under the pressures of work. These moments feel so honest and real that it comes as a genuine shock when Max's pre-dinner tantrum escalates into a physical confrontation with his mother, prompting him to run out of the house and into the night.

Max races away from suburbia, into the woods, and he stumbles upon an abandoned boat, which he uses to explore further. After get lost somewhere in the vast expanse of water he sails into, Max finally locates an island, and clambers towards the mysterious lights and sounds emanating from the island's centre. This, it appears, is where the Wild Things are, and Max initially watches from the shadows as the beasts lumber around arguing and smashing their surroundings. The Wild Things themselves are beautiful creations, and thanks to Jonze's use of puppetry rather than CGI, they have a real physical presence and weight. Jonze and his crew have done a wonderful job of bringing Sendak's creations to cinematic life; I just wish they had made them a little more interesting. The Wild Things all seem to have sprung from different aspects of Max's personality, so Carol (James Gandolfini) represents his destructive nature, KW (Lauren Ambrose) is his compassionate side, Alexander (Paul Dano) is the timid, nervous side of Max, and so on, but they're one-note characterisations, who struggle to hold the viewers' interest.

The other major problem
Where the Wild Things Are has is that, for over an hour, nothing happens. Sure, the Wild Things, having appointed Max as their king, spend a lot of time smashing trees and building a fort, before their idyllic existence is undermined by petty squabbles and jealousies, but there simply isn't enough content here for a 90-minute film. The story just plods along down its meandering, repetitive path, and I'm not sure exactly what Jonze and Eggers are trying to say with this oddly alienating picture. They even struggle to keep the film visually stimulating; the sight of Max and Carol strolling through a desert landscape is spectacular when we first see it, but less so on its subsequent appearances. After the superb and potential-filled opening sequence, the only other part of Where the Wild Things Are that truly resonates is its moving climax, but you have to slog through a lot of empty noisiness to reach this point. Where the Wild Things Are is ultimately a hodgepodge of ideas and conflicting agendas; it has been made with real love and care, but it's cripplingly unsure of its own intentions. It may prove to be simultaneously too strange for kids and too simplistic for adults to truly embrace, although I suspect viewers of all ages may find it similarly boring.