16 October 2009 | MisterWhiplash
a child's kingdom
It's taken Spike Jonze a while to write, film, edit and (after some wrestling with Warner brothers over the final cut) release his adaptation of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. One who greatly admires filmmakers will wait especially for a filmmaker who takes his time in creating something after years of speculation. Now, the filmmaker who first came on the scene with Being John Malkovich, once again gives me a one-word response with this third film of his: Wow. Hot damn. That's two more. This is, simply, a classic work of film-making, but also on a particular subject that so few filmmakers even attempt to make let alone get right, which is what it's like to really be a child. Films that come to mind like this could also include the 400 Blows, Fanny and Alexander, (arguably) Tideland and E.T. Now here's another, and one that is directed with an original eye and an inspiration of texture and feeling, a look like out of our own wanted childhood playgrounds. Or some kind of playground.
If you don't know the story by Sendak- and to be fair it's only several pages long and its story was *loosely* used for this film- is about Max, who, not entirely pleased with his life in the real world ventures into the world of the 'Wild Things', a place where he can be king (or rather makes himself one) and tries to create a paradise with his fellow creatures. This is the main bit of what the story is "about", but how it's about it is a whole other matter. It's a movie children can see and hopefully adore, but it's more than that. What it's going for is childhood itself, what makes up a young guy who has little experience in the real world and can only really see things through imagination and in a prism of what the 'real world' represents.
We see Max in class, for example, learning about how the sun works in relation to Earth. It's a truthful but pessimistic lecture (considering to elementary school kids no less) about how one day the sun will die, and so will all life. This is carried with Max when he ventures into the world of the Wild Things, and when he mentions this to Carol there's a perplexed response to this. "It's so small," Carol says of the Sun, and while it doesn't bother him at the moment it later comes back as a bit of real inner turmoil that Carol can barely contemplate. Or anyone else for that matter. Can one really be expected as a child to understand the full scope of the sun dying out and life as everyone knows it ending? It may be billions of years away, but to a little boy it could be just around the corner.
That, by the way, is one of the brilliant things about the movie - all of Max's collected experience, and who he is as a person, and what he can see and understand around him in his family and surroundings, is represented in the bunch of Wild Things. All of Max, indeed, is split among all of them: Carol, KW, Douglas, Ira, Alexander, and a particular 'quiet' Wild Thing that barely says a word, they're all Max, and yet because of their split pieces they're never fully whole either. This makes it easy, perhaps, for Max to be crowned as their king (hey, he did lead vikings after all!), and to lead Carol's dream of a fortress for them all where "everything you would want to happen would happen." There's magical moments experienced among them, and all of the Wild Things, thanks to the Jim Henson creature shop work, are all in front of us and live and breathe as real things in this set of 'wild' locations (woods, desert, beach, rocky coast). As soon as you can open up yourself to these being real beings, not just animatronics, the whole emotional core of the film opens up as well.
But oh, it's also such an unusually, beautifully realized film. From its vivid and in-the-moment use of hand-held cinematography (and, sometimes, the stillness of looking at the creatures and Max in the backdrops), to the songs from Karen O. that are always supportive of the scenes (never the obtrusive kinds in other kids movies), to the complex relationships between all of the characters that one can see reminiscent of the Wizard of Oz, it's a piece of pop-art that lets the viewer in. Its welcoming, refreshing and kind of staggering to see someone who knows the way children think, and how we don't have to be a mixed-up little boy to identify and see ourselves in Max (and, also, how we can't fully identify with things as a child like divorce, re: Carol and KW's 'friendship'). Where the Wild Things Are works as spectacle and comedy, and as the best Jim Henson movie the man never made, so it works for children. But for adults, because it's really about *us*, it can work wonders for us too.
Let the wild rumpus start!