Thursday, December 3, 2009

Wild Thing, I Think You Move Me

There was a lot of expectation riding on this one, a LOT. Since the first trailer dropped maybe a year ago, Where the Wild Things Are became my most anticipated film of 2009, though not for the same reasons as others might have, i.e. the childhood love of Maurice Sendak's children's book which the film adapted. I never read it as a kid so I have no emotional attachment to the source, so it was probably down to these things: the promise of watching something truly wondrous and magical hinted at in the trailer (the mix of the Arcade Fire's "Wake Up" and those creatures really did wonders - a stroke of marketing genius!); an eagerness to see what Spike Jonze, whose previous two films I dug (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation), would do next. Let's put it this way: there was a sense that cinematic alchemy was at work in the trailer.

I caught a screening last night but it's taken a long five years to get here. The production history for Wild Things is tumultuous to say the least. Warner Brothers were displeased with Jonze's original cut - apparently a lot bleaker - and to produce something they could agree on, he had to commit to a massive overhaul and reshoot, reshoot, reshoot. Factor in the time to augment the animatronic creature suits - initially the only way Jonze wanted to do it - with CGI, and you have an unwieldy production that's grossly over-budget and potentially a disaster waiting to happen.

Thankfully, while imperfect (and I'd give my spleen to see the original cut), the final film isn't a mess bearing all the seams of post-production hell. It's actually quite a beautiful, lovely piece of work. It still lingers in the mind. There's a voice in my head telling me I should see it again (always a good sign in my book). But it is dark, deeply melancholic, and obviously not a "kid's film" in the traditional sense. The Arcade Fire trailer is a great sell, but also shrewdly misleading; despite the song's strains of sorrow, its heart-thumping, surging progression made the film look more joyous and uplifting than it actually is.

One of the saddest, most rueful films about childhood in recent memory, Where the Wild Things Are is ostensibly about being a raging 9-year-old: the stormy emotions, the restless imagination, hell - the restlessness. One minute you're playing with snow, the next minute you're biting your mum, and the next you'll be sailing off to an island where there are dopey giant furry creatures whom you can reign over and hang out with. After that's over you'll just want to go home again.

The notion of nightmarish or 'adult' themes in children's literature or cinema isn't new. From The Wizard of Oz to Watership Down, kids have long been dealt subject matter that'll upset or confuse them. But Wild Things does an interesting, brave, polarizing thing: it doesn't feel the need to graft these themes - nor its fantastical elements - to a "story". The plot meanders. There are no elaborate backstories. Motivations are left ambiguous. It's relatively unexciting. Have a kid compare it to Toy Story or something and they'll think it's like watching paint dry. But that it's not made directly for children is not to say that children, given their appropriate age and parents discretion, cannot glean something from it. What Jonze has done really is create an experience from which viewers can take what they will from it. It's not an easily pigeonhole-able movie - it's open-ended, without solutions - and in mainstream cinema, that's a freakin' unique achievement to pull off.

I have to echo NY Magazine's David Edelstein's comment that it's "a fabulous treehouse of a movie". I love the woodsy, primitive, minimalist feel of the film, the combination of the Dreamy and the Tactile, from the scrappily scrawled title card freeze frame of the opening sequence to the creatures themselves, whose CGI facial expressions are among the most convincing and human I've seen so far. And I like that Jonze avoided embellishing the creatures or locations with any more CGI than necessary. Everything in this world it felt authentic, every element in place as it should be. Except maybe Karen O - I could've done with less of her songs, or even just gone with a straight Carter Burwell score. Not that they're bad or anything, but they're a bit obvious, and as some reviews have noted, too keenly pandering to the indie crowd.

Wild Things might bum you out at the end, but it'll also make you reflect, on the film, yourself, your childhood, or your children - maybe all of the above - which is more than you can say for the dozens of disposable family entertainments churned out by Hollywood every year. I know I'm still thinking about it.

1 comment:

  1. I can't wait to see it! Thanks for the review - will definitely be going :)