Sunday, October 18, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are (Spike Jonze, 2009)

Where the Wild Things Are is the anti-Watchmen.

Just compare these two films. Zach Snyder was aggressively faithful to his source material, carefully recreating images and dialogue from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' comic, and ended up with a movie that was...well, I thought it was OK, but I certainly have no desire to watch it again (note that the one sequence that everyone agrees is great--the opening credits montage--is the only completely new addition). Spike Jonze just made a Spike Jonze movie based on his very personal interpretation of Maurice Sendak's book, and ended up with a miraculous film, one that people will watch over and over for decades to come. Also, despite all that painstaking devotion to detail, Watchmen doesn't really feel at all like it's source material, whereas Where the Wild Things Are, with all of it's extraneous material, feels much more faithful to Sendak's book.
Compare what Jonze and Dave Eggers did with their screenplay to Ron Howard's godawful adaptation of How the Grinch Stole Christmas a few years back, since Watchmen isn't really a fair comparison (it would be impossible to make a 90-minute movie from Sendak's 10-sentence book without adding to it). With the additions to the Grinch, you can tell they sat down and said, "OK, how can we expand this book?" They write a back story for the Grinch, explain the childhood trauma that made him what he is, throw in a love story, and...Geez, I can't even remember enough about it to describe any more. For WTWTA, nothing is really added. Things are just fleshed out. And in every way, it feels logical, it feels intuitive, it feels like the story that was always there.
I can't really say much about what works in this movie, because it sort of exists beyond words, and a lot of it is probably tangled up in what was going on in my mind yesterday (including the fact that my dog is probably not going to last another year), but I do want to say this: I read a lot from people who don't seem to think this is a kid's film. If someone tries to tell you this, DO NOT LISTEN. Not just about this, about anything else they ever say to you. This is exactly the movie every kid needs to see. It seems much more genuinely oriented to kids than ost of the shitty kids movies out there. Is it scary? Maybe a little, but compared to Pinnochio or Bambi or The Lion King, hell no. Shit, the Wicked Witch of the West has been scaring the shit out of kids for 70 years now. I think there is a difference, though. This movie doesn't make a big deal out of signaling that we've entered a fantasy land. If you think of the passage from sepia-tone Kansas to technicolor Oz, or from Charlie's dreary factory town to Willy Wonka's day-glo candy factory, there's a clear signal of "we're in Never Never land now." There seems to be no real distinction between Max's everyday world and the land of the Wild Things, either physically or emotionally. The island feels REAL. And I think that freaks out parents. I don't think it freaks kids out that much, although I don't really know.
And yes, it's an emotionally difficult film to watch (again, maybe more for adults than for children), but those emotions are real. I can't imagine a greater gift to children than to see those emotions validated on the screen. And yes, things get a bit messy. I think there's an overprotective streak in the people that write those Hollywood kid flicks, a need to make sure everyone understands that things are worked out perfectly in the end. You can imagine the urge a writer would have to write a scene where Max and Carol have a conversation before Max returns home, and Carol comes to an understanding and acceptance about Max leaving. And the audience (young or old) would forget it as soon as it was over. It's that trace of sadness, that bit of messiness, that makes the moment so special. It also, ultimately, results in a more satisfying bit of communication between Max and Carol at the very end.


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