Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Where the Wild Things Are

Originally Written and Posted at on 10/18/09 w/ Additional Edits.

Based on the children's picture book by Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are is the story of a young boy who is sent to his room where he lets his imagination roam with the wild creatures he encounters. Directed by Spike Jonze and screenplay by Jonze and Dave Eggers, the film is look into the world of imagination from the eyes of a young child as it takes Sendak's book to a much broader world. Starring Max Records, Catherine Keener and Mark Ruffalo along with a voice cast that includes Chris Cooper, Michael Berry Jr., Forest Whitaker, Lauren Ambrose, Catherine O'Hara, Paul Dano, and James Gandolfini. Where the Wild Things Are is a sprawling yet and enthralling film from Spike Jonze.

Max (Max Records) is a young boy who is trying to deal with his parents separation while his older sister Claire (Pepita Emmerichs) is more interested being with her friends. Max is also trying to deal with his own wild imagination where he wears a costume while roaming around everywhere. One night as his mom (Catherine Keener) has invited her boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo) for dinner, Max's wild behavior causes mayhem as he runs away from home and finds a sailboat. The boat takes him across the sea to an island where wild creatures live as one of them named Carol (voice of James Gandolfini) is smashing homes. Around him are Ira (voice of Forest Whitaker), his wife Judith (voice of Catherine O'Hara), a bird-like creature named Douglas (voice of Chris Cooper), a silent bull (voice of Michael Berry Jr.), and a goat named Alexander (voice of Paul Dano).

Max goes wild around them as he tells them to be still as Carol sees him as their new king. Another wild creature named KW (voice of Lauren Ambrose) arrives to see Max become king as he declares to let things go wild. Everyone has a good time while Carol shows Max his little world that he made prompting Max to want to make a fortress and home for everyone to live in. Things go world though things start to go wrong when KW wants to invite a couple of owls to the family upsetting Carol. When Max decides to settle things with a dirt fight, everything seems to go well until the fight manages to affect a few of the participants. When the events after the fight transpire, things become problematic as Carol becomes angrier while truths about Max's true nature is revealed prompting him to make a huge decision.

Adaptations are tricky, particularly with children's story as it's about trying to be faithful to the book but also present it with a unique vision. What Spike Jonze and co-screenwriter Dave Eggers did is a mixture of both by being faithful to the book but also present in a way that is more lively. In adding dramatic elements to the story such as a boy dealing with his parents divorce, sense of feeling neglected, and acting out by running to an imaginary world. Jonze definitely brought a different take of sorts on Maurice Sendak's beloved novel which was just a simple story of a boy running into his imagination to roam with wild creatures.

The simplicity of the story is there though like the book, doesn't exactly follow a conventional plot structure in what is expected for a children's story. The first act follows Max being a wild kid, getting into trouble, and then running away to meet with the wild creatures. The second act is him becoming king and letting things run wild while the third is the fallout over a huge dirt fight. Yet, the creatures are all based on Max's own life with Alexander representing Max's sense of neglect since the goat-like creature is trying to get attention. Carol represents the angry side of Max as the others play people who Max had encounter with KW as a maternal figure of sorts with Ira as the friendly creature and Judith as the cynical one. Others like Douglas play as a conscience of sorts while Bull is the silent observer who participates in the rumpus.

Jonze and Eggers not only add personalities to the creatures but also explore the complex emotions of what Max is going through as an eight/nine-year-old boy dealing with all sorts of things. In the process, he starts out as this boy feeling neglected and angry where he has to act out into someone who realizes that life isn't so simple and it must be hard for his own mother to be attentive to him. The complexity of the film might seem a little broad for young audiences but Jonze and Eggers are aware that they can an idea of what is happening.

Jonze's direction for the film is truly stunning from the opening scene of Max running wild in his house as he hopes to make an igloo to the scenes of the island shot in Australia. The approach for this wild, free-wielding look of the film truly captures the spirit of the book in shooting the film at the forest, mountains, beaches, and deserts. Jonze also creates something that is huge as it is all about the imagination of the child from the huge wooden ball-nest that the wild things live in to the little place that Carol has created. With a lot of hand-held work in the rumpus and dirt-fight scenes to tracking shots in scenes of action. Jonze also utilized numerous special effects styles from CGI, suitmation, animatronics, puppetry, and all sorts of ideas to flesh out the story to make it as realistic as he can.

While there's actors wearing suits inside the creatures, the movements of their eyes and faces are just as spectacular where there's life to the characters while the voices add an emotive quality to them. What Jonze did overall in presenting the film with lots of wide angle, beautiful shots, and ideas that are truly from the imagination of a child is exhilarating. In bringing the book to life while making it into its own story is just amazing as Jonze creates what is possibly his best work yet along with a film that is probably become a hallmark of great film that kids could watch.

Jonze's longtime cinematographer Lance Acord does amazing work with the photography from the dark-colored look of the nighttime scenes when Max runs away from home to the colorful, bright look of the snow in that same location at the daytime. The scenes in the wood show Acord bringing lots of color and looks to capture the emotion of the film from the sunny, bright colored look of the sun and sky in the deserts along with grey, colorless look of the woods during the rumpus scenes. Even the scenes deeper in the woods with shades of darker colors play up to the dark emotions that goes on in the third act as Acord's work is truly amazing overall.

Editors Eric Zumbrunnen and James Haygood do fantastic work with the editing in providing a nice sense of rhythm for the film's action while not making things move too fast. Leisurely-paced, the film knows when to slow things down for the dramatic elements without being too slow as the editing is overall solid. Production designer K.K. Barrett along with set decorator Simon McCutcheon and supervising art director Jeffrey Thorp do brilliant work with the overall design of the places at the island from the large circular nest that the wild things live in to the tunnels, deserts, and the model place that Carol had created. Barrett's work in the design work along with sculptures and such is truly some of the best art direction ever created for a film with a lot of imagination.

Costume designer Casey Storm does an excellent job with the creation of Max's wild thing costume that looks exactly like the costume from the book along with more casual clothing for the actors to wear in the non-island scenes. Yet, the look of the creatures from the hair and makeup is fantastic in its realism. The credit really should go to the special effects team that include special effects supervisor Peter Stubbs, visual effects supervisors Daniel Jeanette, Marc Kolbe, and Chris Watts along with a team of animators. The design for the creatures are phenomenal as they all look like creatures from the book coming to life. Sound designer Ren Klyce does a phenomenal job with the sound work in the chaos of the rumpus and creatures along with the sounds of the location that is happening.

The film's score by Carter Burwell and Yeah Yeah Yeahs vocalist Karen O is a playful, intimate, yet sparse score that recalls the acoustic work of the YYYs' Show Your Bones album back in 2006. Along with contributions from Deerhunter's Bradford Cox, former YYYs touring member Imaad Wasif, The Dead Weather's Jack Lawrence and Dean Fertita, and YYY members Nick Zinner and Brian Chase. The music plays up to the spirit of Max's raucous energy along with its sense of melancholia. Notably songs like Hideaway and a cover of Daniel Johnston's Worried Shoes. Overall, it's a fantastic score and soundtrack that reflects on the spirit of the story and film while its trailer is wonderfully accompanied by a re-recorded version of Wake Up by Arcade Fire.

The casting by Justine Baddeley and Kim Davis is superb with notable appearances from Max Pfeifer, Madeleine Graves, Joshua Jay, and Ryan Corr as friends of Claire who engage in a snowball fight with Max along with Steve Mouzakis as Max's teacher. Other small roles from Pepita Emmerichs as Max's older sister Claire to a cameo appearance of sorts from Mark Ruffalo as Max's mother's boyfriend are nice to see while Catherine Keener is excellent in a brief role as Max's mother. The voice casting is truly phenomenal with Michael Berry Jr. providing the grunts of the mostly silent Bull while Chris Cooper is sort of unrecognizable as the voice of the bird-creature Douglas. Catherine O'Hara is funny as the cynical voice of Judith while Forest Whitaker is excellent as the calm voice of Ira. Paul Dano is great as the voice of Alexander, the goat wanting some attention as he also carries some pain around him.

Lauren Ambrose is wonderful as the voice of KW, the maternal figure of the wild things who is troubled by Carol's anger while being kinder and more loving towards Max. James Gandolfini is perfect as the voice of Carol from his light-hearted humor to his more angry side to show Carol's troubled personality as Gandolfini's voice brings a surprising depth to the character that no one expected from the guy who played Tony Soprano. Finally, there's Max Records in an amazing performance as Max. Records provides all of the wild and complex emotions of a young boy as he is really the heart and soul of the film as he shows surprising depth to a boy that feels neglected and sad. When he's wild, he's full of energy as he really captures the spirit of the character in the book as it's truly a mesmerizing performance from the young actor.

Where the Wild Things Are is an amazing, imaginative, and heartfelt film from Spike Jonze and company. Fans of Jonze's work will see this as not just his most ambitious but also heartfelt film as he truly captures the spirit and innocent of a child while being truly faithful to Maurice Sendak's beloved book. Fans of the book will be amazed to see the story come to life while seeing how much is kept with not much being missed. Overall, this is a film that can be described as an art film of sorts for children while adults will be amazed by its production values, wondrous cinematography, and visual effects along with its complex, melancholic story. In the end, Where the Wild Things Are is one of 2009's best films from the wonderful mind of director Spike Jonze and its creator Maurice Sendak.

Spike Jonze Films: Being John Malkovich - Adaptation - Tell Them Anything You Want: A Portrait of Maurice Sendak - Her - My Mutant Brain

Related: The Auteurs #54: Spike Jonze - The 25 Essential Videos of Spike Jonze

© thevoid99 2013


Alex Withrow said...

Great review. The more I think about this one, the more I like it. I wasn't sure what to make of it when it first came out, but Jonze really went for something different here, and I dig it.

thevoid99 said...

Thank you. I knew it was going to be different from the book but man, I just fell in love with it immediately.

Kelly Wilson said...

Me too. I don't remembering being read the book (although I have read it since), but this adaptation was just so shockingly touching.

Attached to my name is a brief reaction to the same film.

thevoid99 said...

@Kelly Wilson-I decided to re-read the book before I saw the film and I was glad that it was something of its own while being faithful to the book. That's what adaptations are supposed to be.