Being a prolific music video or commercial director usually means that you have a great feel for eye popping visuals, but often times their endeavors in feature film making are all style and no substance. That criticism can hardly be applied to Spike Jonze. Maverick is a better term to describe this ex-skateboard photographer turned director by way of hundreds of TV commercials and music videos. His prior two films, “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation,” were stylistic gems that relied heavily on their pristine Charlie Kaufman scripts. His new feature, “Where the Wild Things Are,” is pure Spike Jonze and is all heart, a rare thing from someone who came from a world overwrought with shallow consumerism.
“Wild Things” marks the first feature of which Jonze had a hand in writing. Co-Written by author Dave Eggers, and based on the beloved children’s book by Maurice Sendak, the script departs liberally from the source material. The set up is the same, Max (Max Records), a precocious youngster acts out at home and is sent to his room without dinner, only to escape to a magical world to become the King of the Wild Things. However Jonze takes Sendak’s simple and unique vision, adds layers upon layers of depth, and winds up with his own story.
In Jonze’s version Max is lonely and sad from his parents’ recent divorce and his bad behavior stems from frustration at his mother’s (Catherine Keener) relationship with her new boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo). As he flees to the small island that is home to the Wild Things Max finds a kindred spirit in Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini). Max is crowned King of the group and he promises to “Keep away all sadness,” a lofty promise from a newly elected leader.
Carol is an obvious reflection of Max’s rage. His relationship with another Wild Thing, KW (Lauren Ambrose), has recently started to dissolve, and it is wreaking havoc on the Carol and the group. Much like Max’s family did, this Wild one is breaking under the pressures of a once great relationship gone sour. While Carol and KW’s relationship have obvious ties to Max and his mother, there are hints of a waning marriage in their squabbles. Carol’s angry outbursts at his impotence to rectify his friendship with KW have the feel of possibly witnessed episodes involving Max’s father who is never shown.
At first Max seems like an ideal king for the Wild Things. He is tough, aggressive, seemingly fearless, but caring. He wants the same things the Wild Things want: to sleep in a huge pile, break things, and have huge dirt clod wars. He institutes his own stimulus package in building a giant fort contracting the other Wild Things, Judith (Catherine O’Hara), Ira (Forrest Whitaker), Douglas (Chris Cooper), Bull (Michael Berry Jr.), and Alexander (Paul Dano), for help. It is supposed to be a place where “Only the things that they want to happen happen,” but reality in this wonderland intrudes often.
As Max tries to make everyone happy, befriending both Carol and KW, the flaws in his Utopian plan start to show. He can’t make everyone happy, there is no way to keep away all sadness, no matter how hard he tries. This perfect little home filled with danger falls apart as Carol realizes that Max is no king, he can’t take away Carol’s sadness. Exploding in fury Carol takes out all of his anger on Max, saying that he will “eat him up.” Finding refuge literally inside KW it gives hints at some underlying domestic abuse Max might have suffered at the hands of his angry father.
The film is a visual masterpiece. Seamlessly combining digital animation with the amazing Jim Henson Creature Shop animatronics the Wild Things are just as expressive as people. Pulling designs right off the pages of Sendak’s book the creatures are beautiful to look at, and their humanity make them more lifelike than some actors. If the Wild Things hadn’t been perfectly rendered the film would have been a failure, but they were and the film certainly was not.
All of the voice acting was tremendous as well. James Gandolfini’s gruff tone gives Carol a feeling of authority and menace while still retaining the vulnerability that makes his character so heartbreaking. O’Hara and Ambrose are equally as good, taking on roles of mother (KW) and sister (Judith) in this little family. With spot on casting twelve year old Max Records nails his portrayal of Max making every smile, every tear, every howl genuine.
The only real fault the picture has is in the use of songs created for the movie by Karen O, of the band Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Most of the tunes stand above the images instead of melding with them feeling more like a temp score than something organic. Carter Burwell is credited along side Karen O as composer and I wonder if the scenes she scored would have played better under his music.
Rumored to have started writing the script in the wake of his own divorce from director Sofia Coppola, Jonze has crafted a beautiful piece of pathos and rage. Jonze’s public persona always has come off as brilliant mind filled with wonder at his surroundings, and Max seems like little more than a thinly-veiled version of his inner child. If it weren’t based on a book by another person one might even believe that this film were an autobiographical account of Jonze’s own youth, and had that been the case it would explain the gracefully imagined world in this film. As it stands one can only guess where these visions come from.
El Luchador Rating: 5 out of 5
Review By: Paul S. Myers (a.k.a. El Luchador)