Monday, October 19, 2009

"Where the Wild Things Are" Review

"Where the Wild Things Are" couldn't possibly match public expectation compounded over time with interest. The film has been in development under Spike Jonze for the better part of the decade, with studio interest in the property dating as far back as the early eighties. Disney, Universal, and Warner Brothers' thirty-year game of hot potato has finally landed in American cineplexes, but as with any product gestated over comparable length, ends up unfavorably compared to an ideal preconception. "Wild Things" is imperfect, but nestles into a peculiar crevice where it doesn't disappoint, either. It's as faithful an adaptation as one could reasonably expect of a ten-sentence story, and Jonze's vision of Maurice Sendak's classic children's book is fierce, unflinching, and mature. The director takes particular care in elaborating that "Where the Wild Things Are" is not necessarily a film for children; it's a film about children.

Enter Max (Max Records), as emotionally inscrutable an eight year old as, well, any actual eight year old. In contrast to your Pinocchios and your Charlie Buckets, Max embodies an astounding emotional range, compliments Records' chameleon-like propensity to adapt at a moments notice to being fearful, shy, boasting, ebullient, or enraged. These traits get passed along to the temperamental wild things as well, whose petty squabbles and secret loves substitute for traditional plot points in driving the movie forward.

Certainly a novel premise, Jonze deserves a lot of credit for attempting the unconventional and the uncommercial in directing his first indisputably mainstream picture, even when it doesn't quite work. There are moments of transient beauty and touching affection, but watching the monsters emote can be an uninvolving experience just as often. Maybe it's because Max recedes into the background during some of these sequences, or because the creatures don't seem like products of his imagination so much as they do Jonze's or Sendak's. It may just be that "Where the Wild Things Are" suffers under the duress of being strung out on the rack and stretched to satisfy the requirements of a feature film.

Still, "Wild Things" is a difficult film to criticize given its incredible earnestness and Jonze's clear, unifying vision. As evidenced by some of its most favorable reviews, there will be those with whom the film will form an intimate bond and deeply move. And, as evidenced by the lukewarm Rotten Tomatoes consensus score, there will be just as many that won't see anything of themselves in Max or the wild things, children who will be frightened or bored by the director's approach to the fantastic, and still more on whom the film will leave no impression whatsoever. "Wild things" is deeply personal and subjectively polarizing from its conception, but to dilute its appeal would be to compromise its artistic integrity.

I see the greatness in "Wild Things," and envy those who made a complete connection with the piece. There are moments that strike nostalgic chords in me, tapping the raw emotional experience of my childhood, but are hardly omnipresent. My critical analysis is ultimately futile, ridiculous even, in its attempt to define a movie about feelings using blunt logic. "Where the Wild Things Are" is Max's world, Jonze's proxy, and if that comes at the expense of feeling sometimes inaccessible to me or the general audience, the director makes no apologies for it.


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