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.