Directed by: Spike Jonze || Produced by: Tom Hanks, Gary Goetzman, Maurice Sendak, John Carls, Vincent Landay
Screenplay by: Spike Jonze, Dave Eggers || Starring: Max Records, Catherine Keener, Mark Ruffalo, James Gandolfini, Lauren Ambrose, Chris Cooper, Catherine O’Hara, Forest Whitaker
Music by: Karen O, Carter Burwell || Cinematography: Lance Acord || Edited by: Eric Zumbrunnen, James Haygood || Country: Australia, United States || Language: English
Running Time: 101 minutes
Looking back on my childhood, much of it was defined by irrational anxiety that paved the way for severe depression as an adolescent and young adult. My childhood wasn’t bad or repressed in any way — in many ways, I enjoyed a typical, healthy upbringing — but in hindsight, the seeds for my later disillusionment with life in general were foreshadowed by minor yet consistent conflicts in my immature psyche. Anxieties related to friendships, school, sports, and siblings manifested through a combination of genetic and environmental factors, and two of my escape valves from these and later psychological issues were reading books and watching movies.
One of my favorite childhood books was Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are (1963), which I often read with my Mom. When the big-budget studio adaptation of the property, directed and co-written by oddball filmmaker extraordinaire, Spike Jonze (see also: Being John Malkovich , Her ), released in 2009, I noted the subjective, personal significance of the feature-film’s release a few months after my high-school graduation and near my start at college. No doubt others noted similar feelings of nostalgia, of retrospective significance, with regards to, say, remakes of popular Generation X-era (1980s-1990s) intellectual properties in the 2000s-2010s. For whatever reason, Jonze’s cinematic rendition of the classic, somewhat controversial children’s story passed my teenaged self by, becoming one of those good movies viewers often mean to support in theatres but never do.
Less than a week ago, however, I watched the 2009 adaptation at last after I discovered its availability on Netflix; the film lives up to its auteur’s eclectic, sidestream reputation with its diverse cinematographic range, heartfelt performances of outsider, underdog characters, notable music, and whimsical yet relatable sense of humor. Jonze is the Coen Bros. without the gory black comedy, Yorgos Lanthimos without the endless, obnoxious dry dialogue, Steven Spielberg without the schmaltz, a nice compromise between stylized audiovisual eccentricity and saccharine, dumb formula. As fans may have anticipated, Jonze’s cinematic inclinations are a perfect fit for this subject-matter and its mix of childhood glee and more adult-oriented cynicism. Cinematographer Lance Acord utilizes a ton — perhaps too much — of handheld camerawork without stabilizing equipment to mimic the frantic, face-paced movement of its 12 year-old protagonist, Max (a terrific Max Records). The film’s editing maintains visual clarity whenever this camerawork gets too wild, especially in the first act when Max runs away from home and journeys to the eponymous fantasy world. To that end, the location-photography of Wild Things grows more prominent once the cinematography settles down, showcasing the glorious coastal backdrops of Melbourne as a way to convey Max’s childlike wonderment, as well as his greatest fears.
Perhaps most surprising was the strength of Wild Things’ soundtrack, designed by Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Carter Burwell, and a children’s choir. Though effective music in Jonze’s films is not a new thing, the vast, vast majority of Hollywood soundtracks, blockbusters or otherwise, have been so bland since at least the turn of the millennium. To enjoy such a visual, energetic genre film with a great musical component is such a surprise, therefore. A potent mix of diverse vocals, brisk percussion, and electric and acoustic guitar, the soundtrack to Wild Things is anything but forgettable.
Acting and special FX intersect in this film in a way that, in hindsight, was predictive of the motion-capture and photorealistic digital characterizations popularized by Andy Serkis (e.g. The Planet of the Apes [2011, 2014, 2017] reboot series). The titular “monsters” are a combination of practical suit performers (the suits were designed by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop), computer generated facial expressions, and some of the best voice-acting I’ve heard. The seamlessness of the practical and digital FX are impressive, as are how believable the vocal performances coming from these massive beasts sound. Though he will forever be associated with The Sopranos (1999-2007), James Gandolfini’s rendition of Carol (the most recognizable Wild Thing with inwardly curved horns) is the most emotional of the bunch and has the best chemistry with Max.
Wild Things doesn’t have many weaknesses beyond the aforementioned chaotic handheld camerawork in its first act, but some of its humor is either misplaced or should’ve been cut altogether. An awkward scene with owl puppets, voiced by Jonze himself, goes nowhere, as does an inexplicable stunt where Max performs an awkward robot dance for no reason. Otherwise, the film’s physical comedy with the titular monsters, their running and jumping and destruction of the great outdoors, is far superior.
Viewers’ emotional mileage with Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are will vary based on their personal history with the source material, but I’d wager even those unfamiliar with Maurice Sendak’s work will find something of narrative, and certainly cinematic value in this movie. Its cinematographic and on-location visuals are too powerful, as are its memorable performances and progressive combination of different types of special FX. The film has too many strengths based on Jonze’s eclectic, identifiable auteur style to not recommend to most folks, while viewers like me with some emotional investment already baked into the source material will enjoy it that much more. One can’t overlook issues like its caffeinated, hyperactive cinematography in the first act, nor some questionable jokes that should’ve been excised, but those are small potatoes compared to its solid directorial execution. Where the Wild Things Are showcases how childhood anxiety can manifest in frightening yet educational ways on screen, and I believe most audiences will recognize the cinematic merit in that.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Playful, musical, and heartfelt, Spike Jonze’s adaptation of a seminal children’s story finds new life on screen as it expands upon the mature, complicated themes of its source material without becoming a bloated mess. Its diverse characterizations are a function of practical FX, computer generated imagery, and vocal performances that are comparable to the best work of Andy Serkis. Last but not least, Where the Wild Things Are is as easy on the ears as it is on the eyes, a true rarity in modern Hollywood.
— However… Wild Things falls prey to contemporary Hollywood pitfalls in its overzealous handheld camerawork, however sensible that style is from a thematic standpoint. The owl puppets and robot dance don’t work.
—> RECOMMENDED for the wild thing in you.
? Someone should edit a video of Gandolfini’s Carol-monster with his dialogue from The Sopranos. You know you want it.