Sunday, October 18, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are - First thoughts

The director Spike Jonze has made a film that is surprising and unique but for all the wrong reasons. The film is a great improvement over Jonze's two previous efforts, the painfully pretentious Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. Here Jonze's Peter Pan syndrome actually works to his advantage since the film's protagonist is a 9 year old boy and not a supposedly grown man (like the pathetic characters that populate his previous efforts). The visuals are, indeed, stunning and the music by Yeah, Yeah, Yeah's frontwoman Karen O. is exhilarating. The Wild Things have been designed by the Jim Henson studio and they are both beautiful and frightening, much like the creatures that populate such previous Henson productions as The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. And like the films of Jim Henson Where the Wild Things Are proves to be a surprisingly dark and somber affair. There are scenes of rapturous joy where the young protagonist of the film, Max, frolics and plays with his newfound Wild Thing friends, yet these scenes are filled with a melancholy that is both oppressive and inexplicable. We never learn what ails Max or his monster friends, and it seems that whatever joy or happiness they find is guaranteed to break apart, much like the igloo Max builds in the films opening scenes. Jonze may have set out to celebrate childhood and imagination but it ends up being a hollow affair because both Max and his monster friends (and, it seems, Jonze himself) cannot face up to the fact that there are such things as pain and suffering in this world. The crushing weight of having to face reality is never more apparent than in the fantasy world (real or imagined) where the Wild Things are. Instead of giving us a film filled with imagination and joy Jonze offers a paean to escapism, seemingly reducible to the scarred psyche of a disturbed young boy.

Many of the performances are very good within their limited confines. Max himself is certainly exuberant and energetic, though he doesn't get a chance to do much proper acting. James Gandolfini, Catherine O'Hara, Forrest Whitaker and Chris Cooper play some of the most notable Wild Things and do a fine job, all and one. Gandolfini's one-note characterization does tend to get on the nerves as the film progresses, but the performances are mainly hampered by the fact that these characters aren't interesting but simply twisted and bizarre. A scene where Gandolfini's Wild Thing rips his best friend's arm out of his socket for no apparent reason will have viewers reaching for an anesthetic (bring a flask).

Where the Wild Things are is certainly an interesting film and is a surprisingly decent one technically speaking, but ultimately fails to convey any of the wonder and joy that have made the original story (dark as it may also have been) so beloved. Instead of celebrating something real and good it descends into the dark recesses of the mind, a place Mr. Jonze seems incapable of escaping. Until he does he won't make a truly good picture.


Haukur said...

I didn't know about this film until now, but now I really want to see it so I can argue with you.

r. charles said...

Please take no offense, but this is the kind of movie review that makes me not read movie reviews--not because of your opinion on the movie (or is it film? oh crap!...), but because you show your better-than-the-common-viewer elitism before you really even talk about the movie. You may be right (if only a little), but I could probably care less anyway. It's like an evangelist on the street telling me I'm going to hell without even saying hello.

Sorry if this is over the top--call it first thoughts in reaction to first thoughts; maybe neither are fair. Or just mine aren't...

agust symeon said...

Haha. That's so interesting Ross. Was it my blasting of Spike Jonze that got you riled or my writing style?

r. charles said...


I don't have time to read your above post right now, but hopefully I'll get to it this week. As for you question here, I guess the simple answer would be a little of both. The way you expressed your opinion about Jonze's previous work makes it hard to believe that you could have liked the film you were actually writing about even if you wanted to. By introducing your review in this way, the rest seems to play out like a self-fulfilled prophecy (however, I recall and acknowledge here that these were first thoughts, not a review, so maybe I should just hit the showers.)

I'll clarify that I'm not actually partial to Jonze or his previous work; I've generally found him/it to be fascinating/strange and intermittently irritating, then less tolerable with repeat viewings.

I think you're on to something in saying the film wallows too easily in melancholia, but to say that it fails to convey wonder and joy I don't find to be true. The film is really more inspired by the book than adapted from it--I'm not sure they were attempting to capture the same thing; maybe that is a flaw. I didn't think so. Also, in my experience of babysitting children and having nieces, I thought the fickle behaviour of the Wild Things was actually quite realistic and believable to how kids often behave with one another and adults. In fact it's an aspect of the film that struck me in a positive way.

But lastly, the only reason I was upset is that you made fun of the arm being torn off, which I took personally, because I loved that part and the stick that was used to replace it.

I'll read the rest and pretend I have a way to respond later.

agust symeon said...

Thanks Ross. That's interesting. The film has actually suffered on second and third thoughts (after some digestion). I'm glad my writing about it made you think about the film in a certain way. That seems to be all we can ask of people who write on film. That's actually what I was writing about in the long post above. I'm looking forward to your comments on that. And I really hope you don't take any of the negative aspects of that post personally. It's simply a meditation on the ways in which we understand film criticism that was spurred by your comments.

I would like to comment that I have no bone to grind with Jonze. My words may sound polemical but I'm simply trying to get a point across. I find him an A-OK director, but nothing more than that (somewhere in the same range as, say, Ron Howard). I think I was pretty neutral towards WTWTA walking in (as neutral as one can be towards any film). But I found it incredibly crass and disappointing and I think I provide some viewpoints on the more problematic elements in my previous post.

agust symeon said...
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