Friday, November 6, 2009

Where The Wild Things Are Review

There's a scene in Spike Jonze's Where The Wild Things Are when Carol, the striped wild thing voiced by James Gandolfini, shows the protagonist, Max, a miniature model. Carol says that it's a model he built of his fantasy world, his dream landscape "where things turned out like you wanted them to." Max empathizes with the underlying senses of sadness and unfulfilled desires, and by seeing them outside himself Max begins to understand the sometimes tragic complexities of life, maturing years right before our eyes. The moment is breathtaking in its honesty and poignancy, achieving the delicate balance of compositional simplicity and poetic depth that marks the best children's films.

Unfortunately it is one of the few moments in the entire film that reaches this level of quality and transcendence.
I'm going to put frame this review subjectively because Where The Wild Things Are is a hugely divisive experience, and my reaction probably says more about me than the film itself. That said, for a movie that has so many people talking about how deeply it touched them, I found Where The Wild Things Are to be remarkably alienating and boring.

The film isn't bad per se, as it has many elements that are simply amazing: the casting, voice acting, costume design, creature effects, and cinematography are all outstanding. It's clear in every aspect of the design that Jonze and the other people involved truly loved the source material, and desperately wanted to do it justice on the big screen. The final product, however, is unfortunately a case where the whole is less than the sum of its parts.

The film should be seen if only from a purely visual standpoint. The creatures are unlike anything we have ever seen on film, cleverly interweaving puppetry-based practical effects with CG to give us real-world cartoon characters. The wild things look obviously animated and believably real at the same time, giving them a fantastic quality that perfectly suits their nature. The world they inhabit is similarly well realized and displayed, and the set design work boggles my imagination even now. The sweeping shots of barren landscapes are breathtaking, but at a certain point the world of the film begins to feel dry, empty and dead. Regardless it all looks beautiful, and the film is quite simply a visual smorgasbord.

The acting is also superb, both from the actors on screen and those who lent their voices to the wild thing creatures. The always remarkable Katherine Keener makes her ten minutes or so of screen time some of the most memorable in the entire film. Gandolfini gives his wild thing a depth and vulnerability that is frankly shocking since the creature sounds like Tony Soprano. Max Records gives an incredible performance as Max, giving the character a depth and believability that is rare in child actors. In short the movie is perfectly cast. 
So with all this praise, where does the film fall short?

The problem is that the film is barely a narrative. The events of the plot are loosely strung together at best, and there are no significant developments in the story. Everything fits together in an organic but vague way, and nothing about what happens does very much to push things towards any sort of conclusion. The film more depicts an emotional development than a story, but I’ll touch on that in a bit. For now it’s enough to say that Where The Wild Things Are moseys along in no particular direction.

A lot of reviews are supporting the film by arguing that the way the story is told reflects the embedded perspective of a child. Essentially the meandering, largely aimless flow of the narrative is supposed to convey the way in which a child’s attention drifts between disparate events without significant development or consideration.

I completely agree with this summation, as it's pretty clear that Jonze and co. made the choice to have the story unfold this way. Where The Wild Things Are adheres to Max's perspective both in terms of content and form, which makes sense given that it's his story, his experience. I just don't think that this technique was a good idea for a two-hour narrative film. It was perfectly suited to a ten sentence long children's book, and it might have worked for a short film, but it is not appropriate for a full length major motion picture. Throughout the film I often felt bored and restless, as did the people around and, importantly, all the children in the theatre.

It's particularly startling how much the film alienates children. It doesn't seem to even make any effort to appeal to children, and while it doesn't have to it is surprising that a film based on a children's book would not try to appeal to a similar demographic on some level. It goes on for far too long to hold the attention span of the average youth, and it doesn't really tell a story. When I was a child all of the films I remember loving had narratives that, while not always logical, at least moved forward in identifiable ways.

I was always more interested in serialized and gradually expanding narratives than episodic romps. To give an example as reference, anyone who watched the show ReBoot will remember when it changed and began to tell a long-form narrative as opposed to one-off adventures. I absolutely adored the show in its entirety, but my fondest memories are from after that shift. I loved how they told a story with characters and situations that evolved towards something, allowing me to emotionally invest in the development. 

ReBoot is just one example of how I gravitated towards narratives that moved forward in definitive ways, not necessarily towards conclusions but towards developments. Jonze's Where The Wild Things Are does move forward insofar as Max develops emotionally as a result of his time with the wild things. The problem is that this development is too subtle, drawn-out, and intangible to really appeal to children. More than that it's just not enough to be the central focus of a two-hour film.

Forward moving narratives almost always contain emotional developments within them, but Where The Wild Things Are reverses that relationship; it is an emotional development that is framed using some narrative elements. In that design it is an unconventional and interesting film. The emotional tale, however, is so definitively subjective that is undermines its own struggle to resonate with a large proportion of its audience. It tells the story of a wild, energetic boy raised by a single mother who has serious issues relating to his absent father. Unfortunately, if you can't relate to that story in clearly definable ways then you are largely barred from sharing Max's experience.

Jonze's film demands that the viewer see themself in Max, and project their subjectivity into the narrative. The embedded perspective is so absolute that it denies the viewer any opportunity to have their own perspective of the world of the film. It even dominates the camerawork for the majority of the film, as every shot literally captures exactly how Max sees everything around him, and nothing more.

There are ways in which Max's story speaks to the general experience of childhood, but the problem is that those more transcendent elements are truncated in favour Max's specific issues and how he learns to address them. It tells a story that could be read as a metaphor for his maturation. The film has been called a meditation on childhood, but I would more specifically call it a reflection on a certain type of childhood. Maybe if you loved the book your experience will be different, but I can't really speak to that and I think it's a failing in the movie that it has so much potential to alienate its audience.

In the end I did not particularly like Where The Wild Things Are, but I do recommend that people see it. More than that I think it should be seen in theatres. As I said, this film is worth the price of admission from a visual standpoint alone, and it really deserves the big screen presentation that only theatres can give. 

Furthermore you should see it because there really isn't anything else like it out there. The film is a remarkable experiment by a supremely talented and passionate young film maker. The New York Times put out a fantastic article on Jonze and the story of adapting Where The Wild Things Are, and it gives a sense of the difficulties he has experienced in trying to be true to his artistic vision. He truly is a modern auteur.

In summary, the film didn't do much for me, emotionally or as a narrative. That said, it was a stunningly beautiful and unique experience. I know that many people have been touched by the film, so it does have the potential to affect in profound ways. Go see it while you still can.


  1. "The embedded perspective is so absolute that it denies the viewer any opportunity to have their own perspective of the world of the film. It even dominates the camerawork for the majority of the film, as every shot literally captures exactly how Max sees everything around him, and nothing more."
    -- I liked this. Very astute, although there are plenty of shots that focus on Max's face and his reactions. Maybe it's from the perspective of his memory, which could explain why it feels like a meditation on childhood, but a very particular one.

  2. Haha, thanks. Now that you've pulled that sentence out on its own, though, I can see how much I would've benefited from an edit...

    Kat and I were discussing and we agree with what you're saying about it being from the perspective of Max's memory. Given everything in that New York Times article, it seems clear that it's Spike Jonze's reflection/meditation/whatever on his own childhood. Max is standing in for him, and he's looking back on what his childhood was like, what he learned through imagination and, more specifically, through Where The Wild Things Are