'Wild Things,' I Think I Love You
Jonze's Adaptation Strays From Sendak Classic but Embraces Its Artistic Heart
Friday, October 16, 2009
Is "Where the Wild Things Are" a work of art or a desecration?
Let the wild rumpus start.
There are few movies this season more hotly anticipated than Spike Jonze's adaptation of Maurice Sendak's beloved children's book. That 1963 picture book -- about a boy named Max who is sent to his room without supper and then embarks on a journey to the far reaches of his imagination -- accomplished in a handful of sentences what novelists struggle to achieve in hundreds of pages. It provided a screen onto which readers of every age could project their own realities. It made space for parents and children to acknowledge their deepest anxieties. It created a world.
Jonze creates a world, too: a big, weird, richly imagined universe that will outrage literal-minded purists as surely as it will please those who understand that, at their best, adaptations destroy as much as they build. It's a rule that Jonze, best known for the mind-bending "Being John Malkovich," followed to the bizarro letter in "Adaptation," his trippy take on the book "The Orchid Thief."
No surprise then that Jonze, who was reportedly handpicked by Sendak to bring his enigmatic little book to the big screen, has done what any serious, self-respecting artist would do when faced with a task guaranteed to disappoint as many fans as it delights. He's thrown away "Where the Wild Things Are" as a holy text, using it more as a psychological template for a different kind of story about a child grappling with rage and abandonment and his own fearsome power. The resulting movie is more an extended riff than a mere illustration, and one that manages to create its own reality and meaning, even while it brings Sendak's visual world to life with startling accuracy.
Jonze makes a number of radical departures from the book in "Where the Wild Things Are," which he wrote with the novelist Dave Eggers. In the book, Max was the sole protagonist until he reached the monster-inhabited island of his dreams, the omnipotent force of his mother remaining out of the picture. In the film, Jonze populates Max's world with an indifferent older sister and a busy single mother (Catherine Keener), whose date with a suitor ignites the tantrum that sends Max out to sea. Rather than being banished to his bedroom, Max -- played in a restrained, quietly convincing performance by Max Records -- runs out of the house, giving his escape far higher stakes and a much more dangerous psychological edge.
Viewers expecting a consoling, soft-focus version of an anodyne children's story should be forewarned: Jonze takes the story to the dark and edgy place where devotion slips into aggression, where loneliness and fear are indistinguishable from liberation and desire. This isn't to say that "Where the Wild Things Are" isn't suitable for children; it's just that it will probably be most enjoyable to children with a working knowledge of Bruno Bettelheim's "The Uses of Enchantment" and psychoanalytic theory.
Most of "Where the Wild Things Are" transpires on the island, where Max explores the forests and headlands of his subconscious, and where he is crowned king by a tribe of giant, furry behemoths. In the book, of course, these ogres were nameless creatures who danced anonymously with Max in a flickering world of shadows and firelight. Jonze faithfully re-creates that atmosphere in the movie, which is steeped in a golden, autumnal palette. But he and Eggers have also given the monsters names, like Ira and Judith and Douglas, as well as distinct personalities.
As Max is crowned king of the island and navigates his new family -- which, guess what, turns out to recapitulate the very tensions he sought to flee -- as well as his newfound autocratic powers, he develops a special friendship with a temperamental hairball named Carol, whose explosive anger and destructive bent Max instinctively recognizes.
It turns out that Carol is played -- underneath a magnificently scruffy costume -- by James Gandolfini, which might be the only poor decision Jonze made. Film buffs may recognize the voices of the other monsters, but for the most part they're allowed to emerge as the vivid, prickly, sad and funny characters that they are. But Gandolfini's nasal slur is by now so familiar that it's impossible to hear Carol and not see some hirsute, roly-poly version of Tony Soprano gamboling with Max through the island's sandy expanse of dunes, or showing off his own imaginative world, made entirely of sticks and mud.
That creation, like every other visual flourish and detail in "Where the Wild Things Are," is flawless, a meticulously conceived amalgamation of the organic and the surreal that completely captures the austere cross-hatched detail and half-toned color scheme of Sendak's original drawings. Coupled with a hip, lushly emotional score by Carter Burwell and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Karen O, the production design plunges filmgoers into an altogether convincing world of both earthy realism and lyrical escapism. (Piling reality on top of surreality, Jonze occasionally injects real creatures into the magical proceedings, such as when a birdlike creature named Douglas cradles a real-life kitty cat, or Max and Carol happen upon an enormous dog.)
As cherished as Sendak's book is by generations of parents and children, it's hard to call "Where the Wild Things Are" a family movie -- unless the family in question happens to dig poetic, elliptical films that plumb the depths of separation, loss and forgiveness. Some viewers will no doubt be put off by Jonze's more digressive departures from the text, his psychological emphasis, his focus on dysfunction and real-world dramas. But plenty of filmgoers, packaged in a nuclear unit or not, will appreciate the sheer artistry, ambition and integrity with which Jonze has tackled a nearly impossible cinematic mission.