Thursday, October 22, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are

Where the Wild Things Are was always going to be an ambitious movie.

Adapting a book into a film is tricky enough - even without that book being one of the most beloved children's classics of all time. The task becomes even more daunting when a story that's just eleven sentences long needs to be stretched out to over ninety minutes.

So did writer David Eggers and director Spike Jonze succeed?

The answer is both a resounding 'yes' and a triumphant 'no.' The big-screen adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are winds up being an incredibly challenging movie - sticking loyally to the visual and visceral style of the original book, while expanding it in utterly unexpected ways.

Just like the book, Where the Wild Things Are opens with rambunctious Max causing chaos in his mother's modest home. Dressed in wolf pajamas, brandishing a fork, twelve-year-old actor Max Records races after a terrified dog and then pelts his sister's friends with snowballs. After 'acting out' in front of his weary mother, Max runs off into the night to escape being sent to his room without any supper.

From there, the film continues to follow the book's story - with Max drifting off to sea in a conveniently-discovered boat. After braving the stormy waves, he's washed up on a deserted island, where he encounters a gang of macabre monsters who quickly hail him as their new 'king.'

This is the point at which the children's story grows up - and becomes a sad, sweet and poignant journey through Max's tormented emotions.

Director Spike Jonze has accomplished something incredible with the look and feel of Where the Wild Things Are. Using animatrontics, he's bought the monsters of Sendak's book vividly to life, creating real characters out of what had originally just been caricatures of Sendak's Brooklyn family.

The beasts look amazing - and blend so seamlessly into the real-life action that your suspension of disbelief is never challenged. These monsters are real - not just men in costumes.

And while they look real, they also act real - which is actually where my major problem with Where the Wild Things Are lies. They're too real - down to 'real' names like 'Douglas.'

David Eggers left it pretty obvious - the monsters inhabiting Max's island are all aspects of his own personality. There's sweet, loving Ira, shy and awkward Alexander, morose and taciturn Bull and grumpy, pessimistic Judith - plus the visual representation of Max's anger, frustration and loneliness - Carol.

By uniting these bickering monsters, Max takes a metaphorical journey through his own subconscious - but that journey doesn't translate quite as well to the screen as Jonze and Eggers might have imagined.

We're left watching an island populated by a bunch of self-obsessed, depressed and listless beasties - a sort of grotesque parody of Seinfeld, right down the quips, insults and New York accents. After the initial wonderment of seeing these spectacular creatures brought to life, it's a bit of a downer to discover just how boring, pedestrian and human they are. Far too much screen-time is spent with the monsters gazing sadly out to sea, sitting glumly on the hillsides or letting out heartfelt, defeated sighs.

Ultimately, Where the Wild Things Are is a bit of an anticlimax. There's not nearly as much resolution on the island as you might expect - and as Max sails away, you can't help feeling sorry for the sad, lonely and defeated monsters watching him disappear into the distance. He might have solved his own emotional problems, but the inhabitants of the island are left as disfunctional as ever (and, in one example, dismembered to boot.)

It's still an incredible achievement - and a film anybody who loved the original story has to see. That being said, it's far from a perfect adaptation. There's just something missing - something that leaves you scratching your head as you leave the theater.

Oh, and while we're at it, it's worth mentioning that this is most certainly not a movie for children. The pace of Where the Wild Things Are is positively glacial at times, while the monsters themselves aren't above giving little kids - and not-so-little kids - a few nightmares.

I'd definitely recommend seeing it - but I guarantee it's very different to whatever you might have expected. Whether that's a good or a bad thing is ultimately up to you to decide.

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