Where The Wild Things Are (2009) dir. Spike Jonze
Starring: Max Records, Catherine Keener, Mark Ruffalo
Voices: James Gandolfini, Maureen O’Hara, Chris Cooper
By Alan Bacchus
The 'WTWTA" DVD has the very rare quality of its Special Features actually complimenting the tone and thus enhancing the enjoyment of the main feature movie. While I like to see and read about the creative process of filmmaking, I prefer to experience this much later in the life of the movie after it's had time to breathe and establish itself in the context of cinema history. There are probably many more stories to tell about the making of 'Where the Wild Things Are', after all it took 3 years of publicized production and post-production difficulties bringing this picture to the screen. Without completely lifting the veil of the artistic process, we get a wonderful look into the unique filmmaking and production philosophy Spike Jonze applied to this story.
Jonze has avoided using the awful word 'featurette' in describing his behind-the-scenes footage, opting to call his short 3-5mins segments 'Documentaries'. For instance, the short doc 'The Kids Take Over the Picture' shows the literal childlike influence Jonze wanted to create around the set. By inviting the children of the crew to be part of the production Jonze admirably never allowed the crew lose focus of the big themes of the picture.
As for the movie... upon second viewing it holds up as a wonderful adaptation of a fantasy tale told with an admirable amount of creative restraint - a courageous work of art, a wholly unique experience, meeting and exceeding our high expectations. Under anyone’s else’s watch this film would have been turned into an fantasy extravaganza, replete which mondo special effects, overly designed fantasy worlds, fantasy creatures and Pixar/Disney sappy comedic tones. After all, it’s a familiar story, a troubled and lonely child retreats to his dreams where he finds a fantastical world of monsters, of which he makes himself king.
The actual book is only 19 pages, and only about one sentence per page, a very sparse jumping off point for Jonze and his co-writer Dave Eggers. The film version expands on the opening pages of the book, showing us the lonely existence of Max a rambunctious and imaginative 11 year old who is too young to hang out with his newly pubescent sister and who receives little attention from her newly dating single mother. As a result Max has his imagination to retreat to, and when his mother chastises him for standing on their kitchen table proclaiming himself a king, he runs away from home. His flight transforming him not unlike Dorothy in 'Wizard of Oz', into his own fantasy world of his subconscious mind.
Max finds himself in a world inhabited by giant beasts, or ’Wild Things’ as the title suggests. Max, dressed in his wolf pyjamas, plays the role of a king in order to convince the beasts not to eat him. He befriends their leader Carol (James Gandolfini), a volatile personality who is as innocent and congenial as he is on the edge of destructive violence. Over the course of the next few days Max explores the island and caroses with his new beastly playmates satisfying all the inhibitions and desires he couldn't express at home.
The joy of the film lies in Jonze’s steadfast determination to root the story in reality. His choice of using the Jim Henson Creature Shop ’old school’ designs is retro-inspired. His wild things are a seemless blend of old fashioned men in furry suits and carefully-used and near-invisible computer effects. But its the techniques of the past which have been obsolete for over 15 years now that adds the real-world organic quality.
It's just one aspect of Jonze’s remarkable ability to retain the simplicity of the story. While there’s little plot in the book there’s just as little going on in the film. Yet it sustains its 1 hour, 40mins running time admirably.
Jonze is in tight control of his tone - a melancholy sense of reflection. While the action in the story is generated from Max’s childlike imagination, it's told through the eyes of Jonze, the adult. His direction of the voice actors is inspired, favouring natural, understated voice cadence and dialogue over jokes, punch lines and all traditional template dialogue we hear in kids flicks. The characters are simple, so are the words coming out of their mouths, but the way the lines are read feels sophisticated and complex. Jonze’s camera work is typical of his style. Once again his favourite lensman, Lance Acord shoots the film handheld and natural without it feeling 'shaky'. Carter Burwell’s touching score, which Jonze said, was influenced by listening to Arcade Fire, finds completes the tonal consistency. And so this is how Jonze achieves his vision, an auteur sensibility which fits in perfectly with his two Kaufman films.
In addition, on the DVD there's a 22mins short film 'Higglety Pigglety Pop', another Maurice Sendak adaptation, from Oscar-nominated Canadian filmmakers Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski ("Madame Tutli-Putli") - a very idiosyncratic National Film Board of Canada short film commissioned specifically for the DVD. Like Wild Things, tonally it specifically stears away from the traditional children's picture, in this case something more in the company of Terry Gilliam's wild sense of imagination.
"Where the Wild Things Are" is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Warner Bro Home Video