10films: No7 Where the Wild Things Are

January 3, 2011

Where the Wild Things Are

I’ve forgotten how it came up. My guess is that my niece, just turned ten, asked which books were the current favourites of my daughter, a little past two.
Click-Clack-Moo, and Where the Wild Things Are”.
From there, I think that I can quite faithfully paraphrase the heart of the conversation:
“Have you seen the movie?”
“No. The book has only a few words, I didn’t think it would make a very good movie”.
She was wrong; I was not blunt when I told her so.

Besides the issue of tact, I had remembered that the nieces are notorious for their ability to be terrified by even the most mild of films. (I first witnessed this when I tried to show one of them, age about four, Snow White. Most recently, last Christmas, they were given a copy of E.T. The thank you was tempered by an admission that it was a bit too scary.)

That niece was right to doubt the prospect of expanding the original book – 368 words, and **** illustrations by Maurice Sendak – into a full-length movie. But the most delightful aspects of Wild Things is exactly that the screenplay (Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers) managed to pull off this stunt. This is also to the credit of Sendak’s book: spare in words, but spectacular for its ability to nudge loose its page-bound text…. not just allowing readers to expand the story, but setting their imaginations to twirl.

The movie wanders from Sendak’s pages, imagining details big and small, and then returns again almost faithfully. Almost nothing strays from the spirit of the original. (A bit of superfluous romance is the only exception I can think of).             
The Wild Things are given names, and relationships among themselves.
As in the book, the Wild Things adopt Max as their king. The screenplay fleshes out this rail from which things veer – with an exploration of the persistent longing for leadership, gullibility and suspicious, stubborn faith and disappointment. This is the largest of the screenplay’s innovations: Max eventually leaves the place here the Wild Things are, not just because he is homesick, but also because he learns the cost of promising things pulled from his imagination. The magician who pulls a rabbit from a hat, without honestly considering his abilities, is a magician soon to be bitten.
The book plays on a thrill: the Wild Things are terrific fun, but they are friends who turn from playful, to vicious, to loving and then are lost to rage. Set in motion, the Wild Things are moody… wonderful, but frightening, as friends.
There are lots of brief delights of added detail, faithful to the spirit of the book. The Wild Things, when they are getting along, love to sleep in one big heap.
The ending is different, straying close to sentimental: the Wild Things are sad, not angry, when they find out that Max is leaving. I think it’s saved from schlock because it reflects, but does not speak, a belief which I can not shake outside the cinema: it is painfully natural for anger to be followed by sadness.

* * *

The workings of imagination, story-making and (day)dreaming have been woven into the movie. Borrowedvisuals: a ball of

string reimagined as a house where a Wild Thing lives. Max copes with loneliness by retreating into his imagination. When Max manages to snare his mother’s attention three times: once by prying her from work with a story, once by embarrassing her with wolf-suited antics, and once by running away to the place where the Wild Things are.

* * *

I’ve caught myself focusing on plot over film-making.
Let me try to make amends:
The movie’s Wild Things are giant puppets from (the late) Jim Henson’s studio. Each is played by at least one “suit-actor” and a voice-actor, overdubbed in a largely improvised studio session. Together, they excel at communicating the wildly swinging emotions of the Things. Maybe this was partly achieved with C.G. trickery – but, considering the question would require a fourth viewing, it must have been with a subtlety lacking in the adnauseum of recent C.G.-assisted films.
Puppets (and Max) are captured by film shot with an appropriate (illusion of) rawness… faithful, I thought, to the rough cross-hatching of Sendak’s drawings. (director of photography: Lance Acord). Hand-held camera is used, but thankful sparingly. The most striking contribution was made an unusual habit of lighting the action from behind. The result is a camera dazzled by fleeting bits of sun in its eye.

* * *

One last note:
I really like movie trailers.

As a kid, allowed 30 minutes per day of television, it was not uncommon for me to spend it channel-surfing in the pursuit of advertisements… but trailers are so much more fun than ads. Besides, you have to see a lot of movies to become irritated by being subjected to the same trailer over and over again.
I hate arriving late to a movie, partly because it means missing out on the trailers.
I’ve enjoyed plenty of trailers which promoted movies which I wouldn’t see unless handcuffed to the most idiotic of companions.
I’ve enjoyed plenty of trailers for movies which turned out to be brutal disappointments.
Like the opening shots of movie, its trailer(s) are often a movie’s most creative pieces of film.

But there are also lots of cases when I want to throttle a trailer’s maker… and the studio executive who ok’d its release.  Trailers avoid the obvious pitfall: never give away too much of a plot.  What they much too often do is spoil a precious moment which should be wrapped in the complete movie… typically a line of dialogue.
The trailer which I’ve seen for Where the Wild Things Are offended badly in exactly this way. In the ridiculous hope that it might, someday, somehow, be expunged, I will not repeat it here.  I will say that it was the worst part of the movie, but since a perfect film seems impossible, the trailer (a side-show) place to screw up.

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