Sunday, October 18, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are

So I pretty much loved this movie. I was unsure walking out whether I fell on the side of "really liked" or "loved," but after twenty-four hours of introspection, I think I'm gonna have to side with gooey love. And the reason I love Where the Wild Things Are is because it's bold. It's audacious. It's experimental. If the time-traveling man were to have emerged from a wormhole five years ago to tell me that 2009 was going to see a big-budget film adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are, my first thought would be, "Holy shit! It's the time-traveling man!" But my second thought would be, "Well, obviously, that's going to be some juvenile joke-a-minute DreamWorks bullshit for five-year-olds."

But how wrong young me would be. Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are is pretty much the ballsiest and most interesting adaptation of the source book I can imagine, a raw and melancholy ode to the childhood condition that isn't entirely without warmth or humor, but leans much more towards a vaguely painful sort of nostalgia. It's one of a scant handful of films (or TV shows, or books, or anything) I've seen that does a damn near perfect job externalizing and visualizing the intense, volatile emotions and vivid imagination of childhood.

It's not a huge shock that a lot of critics and viewers don't quite seem to get it — this is, after all, the glorious nation that made Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen the highest-grossing film of the year. But while I usually try to avoid falling into the "critiquing the critics" trap, I feel compelled to offer a few retorts. Most annoying has to be the "kids won't like it!" criticism. Okay, one, who gives a shit? Kids won't like Gangs of New York either, that doesn't make it a bad movie. And two, as someone who spent my childhood hale and hearty on a cinematic diet of Star Wars, Back to the Future, Indiana Jones, and James Bond, I retroactively resent the notion that kids are fucking idiots who have to have cinematic shit shoveled down their throats to keep them quiet. But whatever; some people wanted a cheesy pop culture reference-infused adventure movie with a stock villain and maybe a fish voiced by Will Smith. That's fine, there were about a dozen DreamWorks trailers before the movie started much more in line with mainstream expectations and mental capacity.

There's also people aggressively missing the point by arguing that Max and some of his Wild Things are assholes. And, well, no shit! It's been a while since I was nine myself, but I still know full well that nine-year-olds more or less tend to be self-centered and awkward and ruled by the id, not because any given nine-year-old is a bad person, but because you're just not grown up yet. The whole "children as saints who speak like witty adults" thing is a bullshit Hollywood construct giving kids the exact same condescending treatment they give to the retarded and Alzheimer's patients. One of the great things about Where the Wild Things Are is the sheer volatility of Max's emotions, swinging from laughing one minute to red-faced and quaking with impotent rage the next (also reflected in a couple of the Wild Things, especially the James Gandolfini-voiced Carol). It's pretty much brilliant.

Being basically an art film, the technical artistry can't be ignored, and man is this movie gorgeous. In fact, I might go so far as to say that it has my favorite cinematography of the year, taking advantage of a lot of very wide, very long shots of epic natural locations (at least in the Wild Things' country, the real world is intentionally shot in a more straightforward style). The Wild Things themselves, a combination of costumed actors and puppetry with the mouths and eyes animated with CGI, would be hands-down the best visual cinematic creations of the year if not for stiff competition from District 9's prawns. They look amazing, and it's so great that Spike Jonze chose to bring them down to earth with organic effects (and I honestly never even thought about the CGI faces they looked so damn good).

It's an extremely narratively thin movie, with the plot (kid has daydream about monsters) being a mere skeleton to hang mood and character on, so I won't go in depth with a play-by-play or anything, nor will I become the thousandth critic to act like I'm a beautiful, perceptive snowflake for realizing that the various Wild Things represent various facets of Max's personality. Instead, I want to reiterate my love for the pure boldness of giving a classic children's story this treatment. That's by far my favorite thing about the film. It's like if Christopher Nolan wrote and directed an Encyclopedia Brown movie or we got Darren Aronofsky's Goodnight Moon or something. In 2009, I never would have expected this. But it's here and it's great and while it could never be as iconic to the medium of film as the book is to children's literature I think it's a minor instant classic.

4 Stars out of 5

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