Friday, November 6, 2009

Something Wild

Consider this review slightly premature, since at this writing I have only seen Where the Wild Things Are once. This film is the kind that demands, thrives on, and was made for multiple viewings. Its story is actually quite simple, its subtext clear, and yet there are nuances buried within this emotionally-charged, elaborately-mounted adaptation of Maurice Sendak's celebrated children's book that I suspect can't fully be appreciated in just one dose. The taste needs more room to breathe, the richness more time to work its way through the brain and make its way to the heart. I can't in honesty relay my full opinion until I see the film again, but I can tell you that movies that require multiple viewings are often among the best.

On the basis of this one viewing, I can tell you this: Where the Wild Things Are is a beautiful portrait of childhood, in all its restless, adventurous, sad, giddy, contradictory splendor. I can also say that the debate over the film's appropriateness for kids is a tad overblown. Yes, it's dark and yes, its emotions are real and intense, but while kids are innocent, they are not stupid. Their lives may seem simple to we jaded adults, but life is just as towering, fearsome, and anxiety-ridden for kids in transition as it is for grown-ups.

It's been written to death about the ten-sentence length of Sendak's original book, and the various differences director Spike Jonze took with the material, at Sendak's insistence. But the seamless power of Jonze's vivid world cannot be overestimated; this movie version feels like a psychic equivalent of the book's oddball world, and the story's added nuances unfold as one might imagine a longer version of the book might. And yet never does Jonze fail to deliver a completely singular, intimately personal picture. His film simultaneously feels just like the book and precisely like its own unique self.

You know the story: young Max (flawlessly played here by Max Records) is a kid having a tough time dealing with his parents' separation, and as an act of his conflicted emotions the kid escapes to a strange world populated with grotesquely intriguing "wild things." Max is obviously wary of the strange creatures, but in truth he is a wild thing himself, just as odd to the creatures as they are to him, and just as complex and contradictory in his behavior patterns. There is room for deep discussion on who or what the creatures represent -- each seems a mirrored representation of a member of Max's real life, and each sort of resembles the various struggling aspects of Max's own personality. What Max learns in his journey is up for the audience to determine, and what happens after he returns home is unknown. The power lies in the journey itself, the journey of a kid yearning for love, who journeys into the wild depths of his imagination and touches the even wilder depths of his soul.

Jonze, one of the most interesting filmmakers now working, spent years struggling to get this film made, and spent much of production and post-production butting heads with studio execs on the final product. In the end, Jonze got final cut, and his vision is uncompromising. The filmmaker has earned a reputation for being a big kid (a persona on full display in his hi-jinks with the Jackass crew), yet his films are all undeniably complex, creative masterworks. Where the Wild Things Are is the ultimate synthesis of Jonze's duality as an artist, a film that is the truest, most beautiful representation of childhood the cinema has seen in a long time.

Imagine how much I'll gush after the second viewing...

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