Combustible Celluloid
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With: Max Records, Catherine Keener, Mark Ruffalo, James Gandolfini (voice), Paul Dano (voice), Catherine O'Hara (voice), Forest Whitaker (voice), Chris Cooper (voice), Lauren Ambrose (voice), Michael Berry Jr. (voice), Pepita Emmerichs, Steve Mouzakis
Written by: Spike Jonze, Dave Eggers, based on a book by Maurice Sendak
Directed by: Spike Jonze
MPAA Rating: PG for mild thematic elements, some adventure action and brief language
Running Time: 94
Date: 10/13/2009

Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Wild Rumpus

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

There seems to be some question as to exactly who this film is intended for. Based on Maurice Sendak's classic 1963 children's book, Where the Wild Things Are isn't exactly for children (except for the most mature children). It's also not quite mature enough for adults (except for the most arrested adults). But what I love about the film is that director Spike Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers, as well as producer Sendak, have made a film for themselves. It's something that they themselves would perhaps like to see, and that is an all-too-rare quality in the ever-increasing business of making movies. The filmmakers are not concerned with selling "wild things" toys at fast-food restaurants; they merely have an interesting idea that they would like to try out, just to see how it looks.

Just the fact that they attempted this is praise-worthy, though whether or not they achieved anything is another question. The point of Sendak's original book is that the hero, Max, needed to get his ya-yas out. Max (played by Max Records) gets his ya-yas out here too, but also learns a little something about how messy families really are, and how they have to stick together anyway. It's not particularly deep or daring stuff, but it does allow characters to lose their tempers and show their true colors.

The movie gives Max a more complex home life. He's lonely and unbearably sad; his older sister (Pepita Emmerichs) is becoming more interested in going out with boys, and his mother (Catherine Keener) is a working, single mom with a boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo) that Max understandably does not like. So the night Max wears his wolf suit, and after he shouts "I'll eat you up," he runs out the door and into some trees, and there finds the boat that will take him to the place where the wild things are. He meets Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini), who is perhaps the neediest and loneliest of the wild things. When we first see Carol, he is involved in something peculiar; he's destroying all the wild things' individual nests because he wants them all to live together. (The little nests are keeping them all apart.) It's an interesting idea, this destructive behavior, which has as its ultimate goal something whole -- even if the goal is probably unattainable.

Max becomes king and we meet the other wild things: Judith (voiced by Catherine O'Hara) and Ira (voiced by Forest Whitaker) are in love; Judith is a loudmouth troublemaker with a cynical streak, and Ira adores her. Alexander (voiced by Paul Dano) is a smaller goat-like thing who never gets the attention he wants. Douglas (voiced by Chris Cooper) is the practical one who usually sides with Carol. The Bull (voiced by Michael Berry Jr.) is a mostly silent presence who watches the new King Max carefully. Finally, we meet K.W. (voiced by Lauren Ambrose). Like Max's sister, she has begun to find acceptance from friends outsider her family circle. One of the best scenes has the wild things embarking on a dirt clod fight, but the dividing of teams and the ambush attacks eventually wind up in arguing, rather than bonding.

The movie runs with the idea of imperfect family units, even if the screenplay itself doesn't quite feel fully formed. A scene with a bitter science teacher explaining the eventual death of the sun is played for dark laughs, and doesn't seem to go anywhere. And Eggers slips in a few Eggers-style one-liners that stick out from the rest of the film. But most of the dialogue feels loose and low-key, and it's wonderfully surprising and disorienting to see these monstrosities behaving exactly like people, with no growling or hysterical, animal-like behavior. (In one scene, Ira lets slip that he's a "lucky man.") There's nothing over-the-top here, and the characters refreshingly do not feel like over-eager puppies.

Likewise, Jonze's gorgeous, hand-held camerawork (shot by Lance Acord) emphasizes and flattens the planes of reality; we can clearly see that Max is on the same ground with the wild things, and they are on the same ground with him. (The great visual effects appear to utilize people in wild thing suits, with computer animated faces for more complex performances.) The talented singer Karen O. -- from the band the Yeah Yeah Yeahs -- provides some moody warbling on the soundtrack, accompanied by a lovely, dreamy score by Carter Burwell.

It's important to remember that Sendak's book, though it is a beloved classic, is mainly about imagination, breaking the rules and having fun, and with the exception of a few extra themes and some dangling scenes, Jonze and Eggers have done the same thing with their movie. Like the book, it's more nonsense than sense, though it's rooted more in sadness and in acting out than in anything else. But the movie understands that, with a little imagination, sadness, too, can pass.

DVD Details: Warner Home Video's Blu-Ray release comes with a new 23-minute short, Higglety Pigglety Pop! Or There Must Be More to Life, based on another Sendak story. That's the highlight; there's no commentary track, but several other short featurettes are consistently amusing and unique, including an on-set prank and the absurd difficulty of filming a dog running and barking at the same time. Video transfer is fine, but frankly not as gorgeous as it was in the theater.

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