Friday, October 16, 2009

Review: 'Where the Wild Things Are' [A]

By Chase Kahn

Masquerading as a family-friendly fluff piece of children's adventure and escapism, Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are will likely surprise a few misinformed people - or kids. Of course, it appeared from the earliest stills to the trailer, set to Arcade Fire's "Wake Up", that this wasn't your average 'kids' movie.

The director, Jonze (Adaptation, Being John Malkovich), who notably went through some well-chronicled troubles throughout the production, has made a film that feels completely and utterly his own - that is, indistincly reminiscent of his previous works. (The most recent being over 7 years ago).

Credit must also be given to novelist Dave Eggers, who co-wrote the screenplay with Jonze himself, as the adapted screenplay of Maurice Sendak's 1963 children's book is inflated into a feature film that more closely resembles a work of art than a glorified flip-book. If Dr. Seuss could only have been so lucky.

Beginning with a handheld shot, which looks strikingly like a home video, we see Max (Max Records) wrestling with the family dog, from the top of the zig-zag stairs down to the hardwood floors. His enthusiasm and pre-pubescent aggressiveness almost appears to be almost hurting the dog - yet the grip on Max's half-nelson appears to be tightening up, his awareness seemingly untapped.

And such is the story with young Max, an adventurous, playful, creative and combative boy who, like anyone else his age, is hopelessly selfish and unreasonable in his youthful endeavors. We see him build a snow fort by himself and talk to a fence, which seems to be the only thing that will obey his unruly commands. Although even it must recieve a kick or two before submitting.

It is in these early scenes that help establish the character of Max in the real world - what he's like, what his relationship with his mother (Catherine Keener), his sister and even his dog is all about. One night, when a particularly trivial disagreement, or apparent bout of jealousy ensues between Max and his mother, he flees to the land of the "Wild Things".

There, the creatures (who are artfully and ingeniously rendered using mostly giant costumes with CG expressions) run the gamut of human emotion as their behavior, touchiness and feelings come through during the numerous tasks that they perform or partake in under the rule of their "king", Max. Almost immediately, we are drawn to the similarities between Max's world back home and here on this island where wild things roam free. The difference is that here, Max gets to witness the frightening hostility and fragile psyches of the beasts from a more observant perspective and in a place that's more readily relatable to him.

It's a beautiful parable about childhood and growing up, but it succeeds and surpasses all others before it because it faces the truth and it speaks honestly with minimal candy-coating. It says that children, especially young boys, are unconsciously cruel and ill-equipped to handle or understand the motives and feelings of themselves or those around them. Where the Wild Things Are isn't about solving these problems (we get the feeling that Max isn't done with his disagreements with his mother), but it's about coming to grips with them and, in the end, understanding. The film does not celebrate the wonders of childhood, it exposes the troubles of it.

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