Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Let the Wild Rumpus Begin! (spoiler alert)

Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

I’m a sap for Where the Wild Things Are. It was one of my favorite bedtime stories back in the day. Maurice Sendak earned a Caldecott Medal for illustrations that were quirky masterpieces, and wrote nine vivid sentences to accompany them. Why ramble on when you’ve got mysterious beasts with huge yellow eyes, terrible claws and teeth? And thick vines poking through bedroom floors and ceilings?

I’ll skip all the back story on the production of the movie. (This New York Times article on the director’s struggle to create Wild Things is fascinating – well worth it if you have twenty minutes.)

But several months ago, when I first saw this trailer in all its artsy-indie-Arcade-Fire splendor, my skepticism was turned on end. More recently, even when Blockbuster began stocking its checkout line with stuffed Wild Thing dolls, my excitement could not be killed.

At midnight Thursday – after many fruitless efforts to convince friends to join me for the Friday night opener – I made a rash decision and bolted for local theater to see the true opener. It was my first-ever midnight movie premiere. I walked in with previews well underway, just in time to find an end seat near the front. To my left and behind me were throngs of college students, it seemed, watching with reverence. Their faces glowed as the screen flashed, and I noticed several wearing pointy crowns and fuzzy pajamas.

The movie began with the playful humming of Karen O. (who did the entire soundtrack, at times backed by children). The opening scenes introduce Max (Max Records), an iron-willed but sensitive boy, in perfectly typical situations. He builds an igloo. Picks a snowball fight with his older sister and her friends. Daydreams as his science teacher explains doomsday. Max has a wild imagination and rage issues, but he is a strikingly normal kid – something very hard to find these days in big-budget movies.

Max’s dialogue and interaction with his single mother (Catherine Keener) is authentic and intimate, shot mostly with a hand-held cam. The scenes carry an unscripted, organic, emotionally-charged quality that sets the tone for the rest of the film.

Director Spike Jonze and screenwriter Dave Eggers took some minor liberties in transporting Max to his imaginary haven, but the story was not compromised by this. Each Wild Thing that Max meets is a caricature of one certain trait, many of which are very personal to him. Carol (a male) has an explosive temper just like Max. Alexander is ignored and insecure. K.W. is like his distant older sister, Claire. Douglas is talented and smart. Judith is outspoken and something of a mother figure. The Bull is mysterious and silent, perhaps like his real father. (We receive only one clue about Max’s father: a globe on his dresser, with “from Dad” inscribed on the base.) All the creatures are at least slightly depressed. The island is infected with sadness, which they want their new king, Max, to drive out. He greets them with false bravado and accepts their challenge.

Max tries his best to inject excitement and adventure into their monotonous lives, but the Wild Things sober up shortly after each effort. Before long, he comes to realize he does not belong in their wilderness – and the creatures realize he’s not a king – and he decides he’s ready to go home.

I’ve been saying that Wild Things is almost a genre unto itself. It took me a few days (and a second viewing) to decide what I thought about it. The unique thing is that Jonze isn’t trying to captivate you with a driving plot like 95 percent of movies do. He’s trying to make you feel like a nine-year-old again, and not just by the simple vocabulary that could’ve been written by one. He wants you to feel the frustration of not understanding the world, the absence of a father, the pain of being ignored, and the guilt for lashing out. On the island, we feel his sense of wonder, his creative spark, his occasional boredom and ultimate disappointment. The soundtrack by Karen O. plays a big part in building these feelings, too.

Visually, the film is stunning. The images, shot in Australia, are crisp and earthy, with abundant green, brown, gray, yellow and orange. Max arrives on a rocky beach with cliffs and spots the Wild Things in a dark forest. They build elaborate forts out of sticks near the water, and decorate it with golden wildflowers. They roam through pristine woods, with sun peeking through treetops, to discover a sweeping sand dune. At one point, pink petals fall from trees like it’s autumn.

Building the creatures themselves was an Oscar-worthy achievement, but one that was costly, time-consuming and fraught with problems. Wrote Saki Knafo in the above-linked Times piece, “Jonze wanted the wild things to look like real creatures, dirty and feral, with bits of leaf and twig ground into their fur, and at the same time, he wanted to maintain the fantastic proportions of Sendak’s drawings.” In the end, they used actors to move around in the suits and later used computers to generate facial expressions.

Max’s declaration of “Let the wild rumpus staaaaart!” reminds me of when my brothers and I would shout, “Rough booooys!” and terrorize the living room with our dad. The Wild Things clobbered each other with tree limbs and dirt clods; we used sofa cushions. We blew off steam with great violence, but almost magically, we felt immune from pain and injuries.

I have to think that most people who didn’t appreciate Wild Things – and it sounds like there are many – failed to do their homework. It doesn’t have a racing plot, airtight script with slapstick humor or innuendo. It wasn’t especially scary, either. To pull a moral from the story requires some thinking. Many parents have complained that this isn’t a kids movie. (It never claimed to be.)

After some thought, I see significant parallels to another favorite of mine, Into the Wild: Character imagines a world where the grass is greener, chases after that world with reckless abandon, meets quirky characters along the way, learns about himself, and realizes solitude isn’t what he imagined. Maybe stories like this resonate with me because I have dreamed about a life like that. (And no, it’s not a total coincidence that both these films and my blog share the word “wild.”)

Did Wild Things live up to the hype? Absolutely, but it was a little more melancholy, more reflective, than I expected. I didn’t anticipate being time-warped back to childhood. I like this description, that “it invites the audience to watch the action almost as though it were under glass.”

Wild Things is a breath of fresh air, and one very impressive cinematic achievement.


Barb said...

You could moonlight as a movie critic, and your observations and insights are deeper than most of the "real guys." Great writing! Looking forward to more wild stuff....

Barb said...

Very insightful review! I have heard mixed feelings from people who have seen the movie. I think I'll wait till it comes on video. I love reading your writing...keep 'em coming.

Stephen and Grace said...

Move over Roger Ebert! Outstanding writing! The movie producers should be paying you big time!

Dan said...

After FINALLY seeing it today, Jenny and I agree with your review of the movie...definitely not the children's movie we thought it'd be, and very reflective and introspective indeed. I must say, for me it didn't quite meet the expectations and hype, but I did like it for the qualities you mentioned. Good review!