Friday, February 8, 2013

Where The Wild Things Are (2009)

There must be no harder job in screenwriting then writing for children. When adults write about children they tend to project themselves onto them. We don't see children as people, really. This is especially true in movies, where children are typically either depicted as mini adults or these naive semi-petlike waifs. They are these idealized versions of what we remember of our own childhoods. When looking through those rose-tinted glasses they become very fake. They don't talk like any kid really does. The two children in Jurassic Park are a good example of this, ("It's a UNIX system! I know this!") as are the various Home Alone moppets through the years.

The second hardest job in screenwriting is probably an adaptation. (Something the director of this movie knows quite a bit about.) Though great for producers, who know they have a built in audience, it must be hell for whatever writer is tasked with not only making the story fit into a film structure but at the same time not make fans of the original work come after them for any changes they might make. At the same time, they need to change stuff too in order to make the movie not be a paint-by-numbers retelling of the book. If you do that, you get Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. It gets even harder when the book they ask you to adapt is a picture book, less then 30 pages sometimes. So you're expected to make a movie that's at least an hour and a half long on something that can literally be told within 10 minutes while not changing anything too egregiously lest people who read the book complain. What a nightmare.

In 2009, writer Dave Eggers and director Spike Jonze were asked to do both of these things when they were approached to create a film based off of Maurice Sendak's classic children's book Where The Wild Things Are. Somehow they managed to not only pull this off, but did it incredibly well, taking the skeleton of the story and making it a moody film that manages to be introspective while still feeling kenetic and exciting. It captures both the hyper energetic part of childhood we all vividly remember, yet it also sheds light on the other, less mentioned part of being a kid. That fear of the world around you and that all this might not be around forever.

Despite the book this movie is based on, it is NOT, I repeat, NOT a children's movie. I'm sure there are children who would watch and enjoy this movie, but from a thematic standpoint this movie is definitely aimed more at an adult audience. It basically follows what little plot there is in the original book but takes a lot of liberties along the way. Max is a hyperactive eight year old boy. He lives with his mother and his teenage sister, but besides them has few friends. One night he sees his mom kissing Mark Ruffalo and throws a temper tantrum, biting his mom before running away. Anybody who has spent lonely afternoons in their childhood playing by themselves will instantly recognize the feelings Max is going through here. Jonze keeps the camera low and close during these scenes, having the audience experience these moments approximately the same way Max is. In his collaborations with Charlie Kaufman, Jonze often has to put his visual style behind the screenplay's presence due to the dominating force of Kaufman's voice. In Wild Things he has more of a chance to put his own stamp on things. These scenes are stylized for sure, but they don't overpower the mood. It sucks you in to the world of the film in a way that from the very first sequence of the film, as he chases his dog with a fork in lifted wholesale from the book, you are instantly in Max's mind. Honestly if the movie did without the fantasy elements completely and just followed Max dealing with his mom and sister I would happily watch that movie.

But of course that's not the case here. After running away Max finds a small boat that takes him to a mysterious island where he meets the wild things. There's id-dominated Carol (James Gandolfini), second banana Douglas (Chris Cooper), cool but aloof KW (Lauren Ambrose), pessimistic Judith (Catharine O'Hara) with her happy go lucky husband Ira (Forest Whitaker), the silent, intimidating Bull, and pushover Alexander (Paul Dano). After declaring himself king, Max and Carol set out to make the coolest fort where all the wild things will be happy together. But there is tension between the group and this soon pulls them apart, with Max in way over his head as he tries to reign them in.

The look of the wild things takes a couple minutes to get used to. The creatures are thankfully not completely CGI but instead full bodied puppets made by The Jim Henson Company, similar to how Big Bird is operated, with the facial expressions added in post with the help of computers. After an initial shakiness this technique proves to be surprisingly affective. At times they look a little too limited, especially in some of the wider shots. But for the most part it totally works. You buy that they are there, that they have a real physical presence and aren't just pixels in a computer somewhere. There is something to be said about using practical effects in the world of CGI everything, and this movie provides a nice counterexample to the computer dominated revolution.

I remember when this first came out a lot of critics said that the theme of the movie was too obvious, that all the wild things being different parts of Max's subconscious could have been presented a little more subtly and the like. While there is a point to be made here, I think lots of people are under the assumption that the allegory ends there. I can see why somebody would assume that though, as any discerning viewer will be able to pick up on that detail pretty quickly. Carol especially mirrors Max and the conflicts between the two are a large part of Max's realization at the movie's end. I have to say, Gandolfini's performance here is a standout among an already impressive cast. During some of his angrier outbursts it's hard not to hear Tony Soprano in there ("Listen to me Max, you skinny little fuck!") but he makes the switch between angry to confused to sad effortlessly. In his own way he captures the confusion of childhood and figuring out why you feel the way you do. At the end, when he says goodbye to Max, it's an absolutely beautiful moment.

If I had to pick a theme for this movie, though, I'd argue it's not really about the wild things being Max's subconscience. That's just a means to an end. This movie is really about loss, and the fear of abandonment. (I told you, it's not a kids movie.) At the very beginning, while at school, Max's teacher talks about how the sun is eventually going to die in a hilariously grim scene. Later, he mentions this fact to Carol, who tries to console him, saying it's not true. But later in the film he begins to panic when he assumes that the night is the sun being extinguished. If we assume Max is Carol and vice versa, this shows us that, though he may deny it, that fact really burrowed itself into Max's mind. The poor boy has a real fear of abandonment. His father isn't in the movie at all, so we can assume that he is a child of divorce. His sister chooses to go with her friends instead of seeing if he's okay after he starts crying. His mother is with this new man. Like the sun, which will eventually go out forever, Max assumes everybody in his life will leave him and there's nothing anybody can do about.

Similarly, Carol and Max's attempt to build the perfect fort his hampered by the same assumption. The purpose of the fort is to be a place where everybody can be happy together, a place nobody would ever be able to take away from them and where they could be happy together for the rest of their lives. Carol in particular is obsessed with creating a place like this. When we first meet him he is in the middle of destroying their homes because "it's all wrong." Home, to Carol, isn't just a place where he can feel safe, but a place where nobody can take the things he loves away from him. When KC, Max's mental projection of his mother and sister, leaves to spend time with her new friends, Carol just can't stand it. It can't possibly be home. That's why he declares Max the king. He needs somebody to help him make that home. Max's revelation in the movie, of course, is him recognizing the impossibility of such a place existing. Every kid, teenager and, hell, person has had a moment where they assume if they were in charge they'd be able to fix everything. Whether it's your boss being incompetent or your parents just not understanding what you're going through, you are sure that if you just had control it would be all better.

Once Max is in that position, of course, he realizes that's not how it works. It's not just about him, it's about everybody. Being a family means having to make sacrifices, to face those fears head on. It's about compromise as much as anything. At the book's end, he heads home to find a hot supper waiting for him, showing that his mother will always love him no matter what. In the movie he comes to a similar conclusion in a different way. By putting himself in his mother's shoes for a little while, watching her fall asleep after a hard day, he realizes what it really means to love and to be loved. On the Wicker Scale, Christopher Lee is partaking in the wild rumpus.

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