Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are ****

Director: Spike Jonze
Cast: Max Records, Catherine Keener, Mark Ruffalo
Lauren Ambrose, James Gandolfini, Paul Dano, Chris Cooper
Forest Whitaker, Catherine O'Hara, Michael Berry Jr.

A wave of pure joy rushes over you from the moment the studio logos appear in Spike Jonze's "Where the Wild Things Are", an energetic, achingly bittersweet adaptation of Maurice Sendak's children's book.
Published in 1963 the book was deemed impossible to translate to the screen considering it's made out of ten sentences and pictures. The kind of beautiful simplicity contained in it charms both kids and adults, because they have the liberty of imagining more than they read.
Jonze, who co-wrote the screenplay with Dave Eggers, retains the essence of the book and expands on it without taking away its power.
But how do you expand on a story that depends so much on each person's own world views? Jonze deftly crafts the story of Max (Records) using conventional archetypes and turns him into a little boy who's ignored by his older sister (Pepita Emmerichs) and bullied by her friends who destroy an igloo he's very proud of.
He also lives with his mom (the luminous Keener) who can't give him all the attention he craves and the only reference we see of his father is in an inscription attached to a globe he gave him which reads "to Max owner of this world love Dad".
One night Max builds a fort to protect himself from the sun's imminent death (which he learned of earlier that day at school) and when his mother refuses to enter in it because she's busy with her boyfriend (Ruffalo), Max proceeds to put on his wolf costume and create the ultimate tantrum.
He runs away to escapepunishment and finds a small rowboat floating in a pond. He gets in it and sails until he reaches an island where he runs into a group of strange creatures.
Max identifies with their love for destruction and approaches them with the kind of selfconfidence he lacked in his own home.
The creatures, who have hair, horns and feather, don't seem to scare him at all. He tells them he has magical powers and they name him their king.
Max's reign will have dirt-clod fights, giant forts, rumpuses and also the promise that he will vanish loneliness and sadness from the creatures' lives.
The king identifies the most with Carol (Gadolfini) who like him throws tantrums when his wishes aren't granted and wants everyone to be together and love each other.
This brings him problems with the others like pushover Ira (Whitaker) and his girlfriend Judith (O'Hara) who's the self appointed downer. Or Alexander (Dano) a goat like creature who feels belittled and ignored most of the time.
But Carol's biggest disappointments usually come at the hand of K.W. (Ambrose), the most independent creature in the group who has decided to leave them and move somewhere else creating conflicts in their society.
Max soon realizes that he won't be able to keep harmony long, after all he's just "a boy pretending to be a wolf pretending to be a king".
Jonze's first miracle comes in the way he doesn't really ask us to suspend our disbelief, he gives Max so much confidence that we believe what he's seeing without having time to wonder where did all this come from.
In a way he does for the creatures' island what Victor Fleming made for Oz; as in creating a land of wonder that might exist only within the main character's imagination, but has enough humanity to allow all of us as visitors too.
But Max thanks to Records' phenomenal work also gives the boy a characteristic that's usually hidden in these kinds of films: complete selfishness.
When he first reaches the island the boy doesn't think for one second of going back home, unlike Dorothy, his quest isn't to find a way back but to remain there forever.
He only starts thinking about his past when he realizes that even in this special world he still feels alone.
Despite Records' fantastic performance, Jonze doesn't make the island specifically about him. It's more like a place where to find every kind of archetype from a collective childhood's psyche.
The journey there is like an existential crisis at a time when simplistic reasoning contains the most powerful wisdom. "Happiness isn't always the best way to be happy" complains Judith and the statement makes sense in the context.
The director tries to tell children that they are not alone in the world and attempts to explain to them that the perils that lie ahead are nothing compared to the joys.
When Max hears that the sun, like all things, will die the camera shows us how he looks at his mother and sister with an angst he can't share with them. He's also aware that this is the very sun that scenes later will illuminate a vast desert and make it seem like the most beautiful thing he's seen.
He also reasons with spirituality as he becomes a God to the creatures who blame him for their unhappiness. This exemplifies perfectly the deification of parents in the child's eye.
Max can't fathom that his father both gave him the world (the globe in this case) and then took it away by leaving them.
His probable guilt is projected in the island with the complicated relationship between Carol and K.W. who love each other but can't be together.
Jonze's raw production, aided by Lance Acord's breathtaking earthy cinematography and Karen O and the Kids' rich, cheerful music, doesn't really give us time to sit down and think about the film's psychological observations. It's way too busy having fun and feeling alive.
The film spoils itself in the first ten minutes or so where again like "The Wizard of Oz" it gives us all the references we need to solve Max's puzzle in the island of the wild things.
The emotional connection it makes to that movie is a bittersweet reminder that Max's story might be ridden with perpetual repetition; its events meant to be reenacted forever by generations to come.
Jonze may not know how to solve the issues of childhood, but he tells us the island will be there when we need it.
And if Jonze, like Max, asks too many questions the imaginative answers he comes up with serve to appease at least for a minute or two the alienation that comes with being a child, regardless of how old we are.

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