Sunday, February 12, 2012

Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

Image from IMP Awards

Where the Wild Things Are

Maurice Sendak's book upon which this film is based is a very slight one indeed, featuring only a few sentences of text to accompany its illustrations. The film adaptation by Spike Jonze, which is equal parts energetic and leaden, isn't exactly heavy on story either but does by necessity have more content than its source material.

Max (Max Records) is a young boy living with his single mum (Catherine Keener) and sister. He's a little wild and imaginative, and clearly feels alienated and is thus prone to moody tantrums and outbursts. When his mum brings a boyfriend over for dinner he has a particularly wild reaction and runs away, jumps into a boat and sails off to a strange land filled with large, furry creatures - the eponymous 'Wild Things'. The wild things are a familial community full of bickering and fighting but also affection and caring. Max enters their world and convinces them that he is a king (they're not to bright) and proceeds to lead them in various 'fun' activities.

The true substance of the film is the interplay between the creatures. They each appear to represent different aspects of Max's personality and family, and as he attempts to lead them he begins to discover the complexity inherent in all 'human' feelings and interactions. Yes, it's a 'growing up and learning about life' movie, but done like no other. It isn't a cutesy film by any means, with the creatures often being quite menacing and dangerous (whether intentionally or, as is often the case, accidentally).

Tonally it varies much like Max's moods, from the exuberant joy of just running through the woods to the bitter anger of having strangers being brought home; it does feel a little too dour at times though. The music by Carter Burwell and vocals by the Yeah Yeah Yeah's Karen O add to the dreamlike atmosphere.

The visuals are stunning and often surreal, and real credit must be given to the way the creatures have been designed and realised. They are actors in costumes with CG used to animate their faces, and the end result is a physical and digital performance that feels completely believable. You simply forget that you're seeing an effect and accept the creatures as, well, creatures!

The top notch cast who wore the suits and voiced the characters contribute immensely to pulling off the illusion, particularly James Gandolfini as Carol, the wild thing who most closely mirrors Max's feelings of isolation and anger. Speaking of Max, the performance by Max Records (yeah they found a Max to play Max!) is superb and absent any of the 'mature beyond their years' personality traits that too many precocious child actors possess.

It's a very good film but isn't a wholehearted thumbs up. As I said sometimes it feels way too downbeat, and while it does attempt to reflect Max's own dynamic personality I'm not sure it fully succeeds. It also drags a little, probably because of its random non narrative nature. These caveats aside though, it does capture the feeling of being a kid and an outsider incredibly well, as well as the simplistic child logic understanding of the way the world works. I wouldn't really call this a film for kids - it's more like a peek into the mind of a child that is intended for adults.

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