“Will you keep out all the sadness?”
“I have a sadness shield that keeps out all the sadness ... and it's big enough for all of us.”
Spike Jonze has cult-status in his DNA. Having weaned himself on trendy music videos for Fatboy Slim, Beck , the Beastie Boys, Tenacious D and The Breeders, he also crafted stylish TV commercials and was involved with the masochistic grunge-fest of Jackass. Two intensely original low-budget indie features followed,1999's Being John Malkovitch and 2002's Adaptation, both marking him out as a maverick with an eye for the high concept. A turn in David O. Russell's wayward Iraq War black comedy Three Kings also sealed his commitment to involving himself with anything that rebukes the mainstream and traipses down the path least travelled.
Unsurprisingly, given his penchant for the unusual, the dreamy and the abstract, Jonze developed a friendship with literary kindred spirit, Maurice Sendak, whose famous 1973 children's book, Where The Wild Things Are, this film is based upon. The result was a film that garnered lavish praise from American critics but more considered opinions from their British counterparts. Audiences, regardless of which side of the Pond they were on, were divided.
Nine year old Max (played marvellously by newcomer Max Records) suffers from unsubstantiated feelings of alienation and neglect due, in no small part, from the loss of a father figure in his dysfunctional home. A snowball fight sparks some much needed fun into the loner's life, but this soon turns to tears when his initially agreeable opponents then go too far and trash his igloo. Tears turn to tantrums and when these turn to aimless, blameless and arbitrary revenge upon his petulant teenage sister, Max finds himself on a road to dislocation and senseless guilt. Nothing is irreparable, yet a random conflict with his mother (Catherine Keener) sees the errant Max, dressed in a wolf costume, fleeing into the night and stumbling across a little boat that enables him to cross an enchanted sea and arrive at a land Where The Wild Things Are. Here, he meets a strange “family” of ogreish creatures who while away their limbo-lost time building twig-and-dirt nests, bickering endlessly and hankering after some sort of leadership ... and togetherness. They are a mirror image of the problems that Max believes he has left behind. So, pretending to be a visiting king - primarily to thwart the creatures' initial compulsions to eat him - he sets about putting their primal house in order, little realising that he is merely working out his own dilemmas in the process.
Melancholy. Twisted. Isolated. Fractured. These are the corner-themes that signify all the unlabelled crises of a child's mind. The something and nothing of situations that seem catastrophic to an innocent are bandied-about in this tale of wish-fulfilment and wish-repercussion. Whatever changes Max makes to this quirky environment for the better, someone inevitably becomes estranged and disillusioned. Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini) is the one who forms the greatest attachment to Max, but then Carol is almost exactly like Max's most dominant impulse - troubled, agitated, quick to lose control. But Carol is about nine-feet tall and built like a furry barge. When he gets annoyed, things don't just get broken. They get demolished. As Max's time in this bleak land (actually filmed in real locations in Australia, but the locale does look suitably “other”) causes an equal amount of distress as it does harmony, the Wild Things are forced to face up to responsibilities and take stock of what each others' feelings are. And, at the same time, Max is forced to understand the ramifications of his own actions and to reconcile some of his more volatile tendencies.
Essentially a very simple, yet timeless, allegory for the incendiary notions that childhood provokes in those going through it, Where The Wild Things Are is whimsy written in large furry letters with spiky horns on top. It tells us nothing that are own experiences haven't already taught us and yet it captures the indecision and confusion that we have all faced in our own tender years in such a way that it makes Disney's moral sermons seem like big neon annoyances by comparison. Wilfully evasive of spelling things out and totally shunning of the conventions of family fantasy, Jonze's melancholy adaptation is so atypical of the usual Hollywood children's flick that it seems positively subversive. This, of course, is the stealth tactic that he and co-writer Dave Eggers have employed. They have created an indie-mood fugue of dissatisfaction, idle rage and malcontent and pretended that this is merely the true meaning of brazen, unapologetic innocence. And it works ... to a large degree. They know that to pander to the kids is to sanitise the real emotions that beset them during this transitory phase in their pre-teen lives. They also know that the belief that adult consternations and all those unexpressed, ill-defined feelings of resentment, loss and vulnerability that the rat-race and scraping-by just to pay the bills induce in us are somehow different and more important is nothing less than a complete fallacy. The problems we encounter in our daily lives as adults are exactly the same as those that we faced as children of Max's age. Nothing changes except the names and the places - and maybe the amounts of money involved!
But Jonze is also concerned with fine-tuning a fairytale for the modern age. He evicts a time-scale from the story, or the necessity for Max to eat, stay dry, keep warm. He connects events in a sort of stream-of-consciousness fluid contrail the direction of which only he seems to know. Yet, even if the film may seem allergic to incidence on the surface, it still manages to pulverise the senses during a couple of oddly compelling set-pieces that are thrilling and more than a little bit renegade.
A game of hurling vast dirt-balls at one another becomes something akin to an aerial bombardment from a squadron of B-52s. Ground-shaking running battles are rendered with the sort of kinetic vividness of Black Hawk Down, and the unpredictable nature of what these creatures, and especially Carol, are capable of, even in good-natured jest, actually becomes quite exciting and even nerve-wracking. Surprisingly willing characters are thrown through the air, or slammed into tree-trunks. An arm is torn off at one stage, and Max is even forced to hide inside the stomach of a helpful Thing to avoid being chewed-up and swallowed down into the stomach of another less helpful Thing. I've seen a couple of reviews for the film that play up the angle that it lacks danger and drama. Well, personally speaking, I think those writers have missed the point. During the third act rug-pulling in which disquiet and anger wells up to the surface again, these are precisely the elements that kept me riveted to a narrative that has, up until this stage in the game, done little more than meander leisurely from one “wild rumpus” to another. Thus, even though you can doubtlessly see what the denouement will be right from the start, things have a creepy uncertainty about them and a delicious frisson of unpredictability. Max doesn't exactly pry into the lifestyles and backstory of this ungainly tribe either. Which is wise. Once again, other filmmakers may well have seen fit to embroider the Wild Things with cultural detail and furnish them with a history that destroys their mythical/abstract quality. Jonze ensures that their mystique is maintained - even if it is disturbingly miserable one.
And the writer/director clearly adores this flimsy material. Whilst there isn't exactly much in the way of incident, there is plenty of mood to be wallowed in, and emotional angst to be wrought. Curiously, the film never feels pretentious, despite the copious metaphors that these over-stuffed critters in their geographically odd dream-isle seem to represent. All the usual playground crises are dealt with, from sulky tantrums to bullying to backstabbing to secret alliances, and it would be simple for the film to have stopped at that. But the conceit is a touch more sophisticated, with many of the Wild Things also exhibiting some more usually mature hang-ups of jealousy and psychological dissatisfaction. In fact, if it wasn't so continually fresh and entertaining, this would probably win the award for most depressing fantasy of the year. Mini-dramas develop over the slightest of things and friends fall out over seemingly nothing at all, a couple of long-standing grievances excepted. A deeper subtext in that Carol, always the flashpoint of any confrontation anyway, might even devour Max should he ever discover that the boy is not really a king, is quite cleverly revealed and serves to remind us that the child can never, ever entirely trust the grownups - human or monstrous - that are around him. This darker element casts a provocative seed of doubt over many components of Max's adventure. Whereas the all-too real and pervasive dread of a child running off into the night and falling-in with potentially the wrong crowd is acutely, though briefly rendered during Max's sudden escape from his mum and her boyfriend, played by Mark Ruffalo (or should that be Gruffalo?). Fables from the times of the Brothers Grimm warned about precisely this kind of thing happening, and I find the weird thing is that the more child abductions and murders there are in the world, the more that modern fiction for youngsters - and I've got a couple of young kids, myself, so I know this for a fact - seems to encourage the confidence and resilience to undertake lone adventures into the unknown at the drop of a hat. In this way, the story feels very much like an Americanised Neil Gaiman much more so than what Sendak's original book really was - which was an Americanised Roald Dahl.
The star of the show is definitely Max Records, who is outstanding as the wolf-suited boy on his emotional quest for kinship. People often remark about the innocence or the openness of a child performer. The vulnerability of Finding Neverland's Freddy Highmore, the elaborate sentimentalism of Haley Joel Osment and the maturity of Dakota Fanning, say. But youngling talent is much more convincing when the child in question has to play, basically, himself and makes no attempt to “act” in the manner that we, as film-viewers, expect from anyone that we see up there on the screen. To this end, Records is magnificently believable and sympathetic. He doesn't say anything that is obviously above him. He doesn't do anything that a child of his age wouldn't naturally do. Okay, we see him sailing a little boat, Iggle-Piggle-style, across the sea, but this is the fantasy that he believes he is having. In his mind, he can sail the seas. What he isn't doing, however, is solving world wars, thwarting alien invasions or fighting off bad guys with an array of Tex Avery-inspired slapstick-tactics. You only have to look into Max's eyes to see the reality of what the character is going through. When he is afraid, he is not the wide-eyed snapshot of Oz's Dorothy, he looks mostly bemused and wary at the same time - perhaps too afraid to breathe, yet still fascinated. He regards everything around him with the sort of combination of acceptance and wonder that only such an honest performer could bestow. The sad thing is that, as thoroughly excellent as he is, Max Records is bound to be overlooked and passed-over in favour of all the more hideously conventional, hit-their-marks and giggle on-cue mini-actors that proliferate in family fare these days. All too often, Hollywood confuses a little loud voice with genuine talent.
For an appropriately wacky, semi-threatening look, Jonze approached the Jim Henson Creature Workshop to invest his Things with their characteristic Wildness, the final effect - taking in massive body-suits, puppetry and CG - an unusual hybrid of the cute and the frightening. You take that big brown scary behemoth from The Muppet Show - I've completely forgotten what his name is, but I'm sure you know who I mean - throw him into a blender with Labyrinth's Hoggle, and you get James Gandolfini's stroppy loose-canon Carol. With thoughtful eyes, a voice that, divorced from Tony Soprano's face, actually sounds like a mimic of Monsters' Inc's Sully and mood-swings that veer schizophrenically from humble to tempestuous, the bestial critter is the dangerous teen rebel who dearly loves his family, of course, but could easily kill the lot of them if things aren't done just so. It is impossible not to warm to Carol, despite how difficult he makes such a bond appear to be. His brute strength and overpowering rage fly in the face of the wondrous model that he has crafted in his secret den, a work of intricate beauty to rival John Merrick's scaled-down matchstick rendition of the Houses Of Parliament in The Elephant Man, and its symbolism comes to be almost as powerful and personal.
For the other denizens of this queer land of wintry glen and rolling desert, the visuals come to resemble a less acid-dropped take on The Fimbles. The voice-cast (among them Chris Cooper, Forest Whitaker, Paul Dano, Catherine O'Hara and Michael Berry Jnr) is exemplary, though each is encouraged to be dour and borderline depressed, their tones mumbled and eerily unfamiliar as a result. Perhaps because of this, you tend to hang on every word, almost as though their dialogue has been written by Woody Allen after a humour-removal operation. That each of these misshapen creatures is a tangential expression of one of Max's own emotional traits is not a revelation. It is how these rich and varied, tender and chaotic voices all interact that provide the magic code of Max's soul. That nothing is actually handed to us on a plot-plate is courtesy of the all-too humanistic melange of conflicted opinions swirling around in Max's head. He's a slave to each passing feeling and can't, in all honesty, fathom-out where any of them may be leading him. Therefore, the Wild Things can happily and effectively be seen as separate entities rather than alternate strands of the one psyche.
One voice that, thankfully, doesn't mumble, is that of the unique and eclectic Carter Burwell, who has been a steadily unorthodox talent in film score composing for many years. Soft, lyrical and experimental, he seems to fashion lilting, melancholic melodies out of the most meagre of ensembles. Having worked extensively with the Coen Brothers he has an obvious affinity with independent or left-field filmmakers and this particular production appears to be right up his street. The score also features some wonderful songs from Yeah Yeah Yeah's cute Karen O (herself a former partner of Jonze) that manage to capture the flavour of whimsy and of untargeted, ill-defined yearning. Burwell has also produced the fine horror score for Psycho III, action-licks for The Corruptor and, something that I can't wait to hear, the music for the forthcoming True Grit remake from the Coens.
Complaints can be levelled at the film's lack of actual story, the meat and potatoes of Max's fantastical odyssey not really amounting to more than a couple of outdoor games with the Wild Things and a series of emotional dead-spots with Carol. But Sendak's original tale revolved around even less, and to have added anything more than Jonze and Egger do would, almost certainly, have transformed the story into something unrecognisable from its source. You can imagine how tempting it would have been for practically any other director or screenwriter to have shoehorned-in a valiant, island-saving quest of some kind, or a showdown with another tribe of Wild Things. The dilemma that Max faces in real life is not threatening to his well-being, or even the sanctity of his family, well not in the long term, at any rate. He is just a kid who is typically prone to feelings of alienation and loneliness. He doesn't need a wardrobe to Narnia to help him find courage and he doesn't require a trip on a floppy-eared dragon to the accompaniment of Limahl's crooning of The Neverending Story in order to return home and defeat the local bullies. In this way, the essence of the tale is grand, but on a profoundly intimate scale.
Aiding this intimacy is the use of hand-held cameras by Jonze's regular DOP Lance Acord, which provide an enjoyably helter-skelter, on-the-hoof style to the film. This especially embraces the madcap action of the dirt-clod fight, of course, but it also makes simple shots of Max just approaching a seated Wild Thing at the end of a tunnel all the more arresting and vivid. What this does, as well, is to make the patently absurd stuffed puppet costumes somehow all the more believable by refusing to simply sit back and drink-in the visuals like most other creature-feature FX-shows and allowing them to move and breathe with credible alacrity.
Interestingly, the exact demographic that this story is about and should appeal to most of all - namely my nine-year old son - found the endeavour to be pleasantly weird, but ultimately rather boring and pointless. Although he had seemed enraptured by Max's adventure throughout the film, come the end of it, he simply shrugged his shoulders and demanded something more exciting to watch. Would he see it again, I enquired of him? And the answer was a frown and an arrogant snort of indifference. Now I can't say that this attitude would be representative of many other kids within the target range, but the film does feel a little too, well, slight to engage on anything more than a mildly diverting level. Kids love outrage and violence. They love rebellion and wild abandon. In these respects the film does them proud. But the very crucial framework of acceptance and camaraderie, love and contentment - so obviously represented by Jonze's softly charismatic production and glaringly overt to the rest of us - will possibly be lost on younger minds, for whom this stuff is intuitive anyway. They get it, all right. But they will almost certainly be craving something more typically tangible to get their imaginative teeth into. Thus, the indie-vibe crusade to bring the fable home to the kids may well be a failure.
But, whatever your take on Jonze's adaptation of a cherished tale, it is wonderfully refreshing to experience something that doesn't follow the recommended route and just opts to celebrate the confusion and idiocy of childhood. Odd, then ... but still fun of a very haunting kind.
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