Tuesday, October 20, 2009
Where the Wild Things Are
By Elise Nakhnikian
Spike Jonze’s origin story is legendary wherever hipster artists congregate. One of the first of a generation of filmmakers who got to Hollywood via music videos and ads, he started out as a skateboarder who made wildly inventive, no-budget skate videos of his friends.
He’s about to turn 40 this week, but he’s never lost his youthful energy, originality, or fearlessness, cranking stuff out so fast the Museum of Modern Art called its recent retrospective of his work “Spike Jonze: The First 80 Years.” (Yes, Spike can even get MOMA to loosen up.) And he’s equally at home in the art house (he directed Being John Malkovich and Adaptation and played a touching young grunt in Three Kings), at the multiplex (he produced the Jackass movies), and on the Internet (check out his free online broadcast channel, VBS.tv, or the YouTube videos where he plays a wannabe b-boy who rocks out in public places.)
Where the Wild Things Are, his adaptation and expansion of Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book, is about as mainstream as anything he’s done. But it’s still a Spike Jonze Joint, an intelligently conceived, ingeniously crafted creation as steeped in humanity as a rum cake is in rum.
A natural collaborator, Jones attracts other people as gifted and original as he is. For Malkovich and Adaptation he paired up with Charlie Kaufman, probably the most interesting screenwriter working in Hollywood. For Wild Things he enlisted the help of another brilliant youngish writer, Dave Eggers. Eggers hadn’t written any screenplays when Jonze approached him (his first feature, Away We Go, was released during Wild Thing’s long gestation period), but Jonze believed he could nail this one – and so he did.
The screenplay starts and ends at home with Max (Max Record), showing us a deceptively simple series of scenes. This part of the story is new, but it echoes the book’s poetically spare use of words. Shot with a handheld camera that follows Max so closely you share every outsized emotion, it economically conveys the anger and angst that causes Max to run away from home. His scenes with his mother (Catherine Keener) are particularly masterful, little cinematic bouillon cubes of concentrated tenderness, yearning, and unadulterated love.
Watching Max play with ferocious abandon, listen to a scary lecture in science class, or gaze up at his mother from the floor beneath her desk, we see a well-loved but lonely kid with a vivid imagination, stranded in a family where everyone else is either absent (his parents are divorced) or too busy to give him the attention he needs.
Cinematographer Lance Acord, who shot all of Jonze’s features and many of his music videos, gives Max’s home a warm tone, switching to cool greys, blues and blacks and a lot of underexposed, murky shadows after Max runs away to the island where the wild things are. The island scenes are shot on location in southern Australia, where the filmmakers found deserts, seas, cliffs, and forest – primal sites with the dreamlike intensity of the pictures in Sendak’s book.
The wild things also look amazingly like the book’s illustrations. The Jim Henson Company created the creatures, constructing giant puppet suits that look like the characters in the book. These are worn by actors whose movements make their body language surprisingly eloquent. Shot to look nearly ten feet tall (they’re actually more like seven), with enormous heads and sharp teeth, they’re terrifying at times, but they can also be tender or vulnerable.
Essentially huge children, they’re quick to make friends, prone to magical thinking and impulsive actions, and brimming over with feeling. In short, they’re the greatest playmates in the world for Max – except when they threaten to eat him.
Whatever their moods, they’re as believable as the dirt clods they heave at each other. Computer animation helps make their faces and eyes amazingly expressive. Watching the grief-ravaged face of Carol, the wild thing Max is closest to, as Max sails away moved me almost as much as seeing the look on Keener’s face when he showed up at home.
I loved this movie’s lack of pyrotechnics, paint-by-numbers peril, and preachy morals (Max does learn some important things about how to manage his own feelings and respect other people’s, but those lessons emerge organically). I also love the fact that it’s not tied down by the standard narrative arc that constricts most kids’ movies.
Wild Things has a rhythm all its own, but it’s easy to flow with it. Instead of obeying the dictates of screenwriting 101, it follows the logic of human emotion, leaping from one big feeling to the next just like a kid – or a wild thing.