So at long last, Where the Wild Things Are is opening today, after months of teasing trailers that have brought grown men to tears, online clips of Spike Jonze adorably romping with children behind the scenes, and clothing lines at Urban Outfitters and Opening Ceremony.
Warner Bros. took a big chance on an indie director known for his music videos and his feature films Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. It was a big gamble on to trust Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers with an estimated $80M budget (according to IMDb Pro -- other outlets report the budget could have been as high as $90M or even $100M). Personally, I think they're betting not on the family audience, but on the generation who read this book until it was dog-eared.
Jonze used that money to great effect; you will be dazzled by the environments that Max and his friends troop through, from the forests to the desert, the ocean, and even a magical scene in what looked like a cherry blossom orchard dropping petals on Max and his friend Carol. The Wild Things' faces are uncannily animated, and no detail has been overlooked.
Except for the inherent problems of making a short children's book into a feature length film, and a short one at that. The book is perfect for little kids, and many of us grew up reading it or having it read to us. (I went in cold, having not read the book since I was a child, if at all.) If I had a child, I don't think I would bring him/her to see this; maybe a teen or tween, but not a smaller child around Max's age. The scenes of Max in real life are relatable for everyone; everyone has felt, at one time or another, overlooked, underloved, ignored, angry. The world is unfair, and the best way to get back at it is to stomp, bite, and yell. Unfortunately, Max is just, well, a brat, and adults will end up sympathizing with his exhausted mother (played by the always fabulous Catherine Keener) rather than this little wild thing who is, by turns, adorable, needy, sad, and overindulged.
Kids and adults alike will enjoy the scenes of the Wild Things and Max playing in the forest, but the scary, sad parts that were just scary and sad enough in a book will pull the heartstrings of some adults but will be too much for little kids on the big screen. Then again, plenty of kids go to see R-rated movies with or without their parents, so either it will be too scary (like The Dark Crystal when I was a kid) or boring.
So then there's the problem of the pacing. Not much happens. They play. They build a fort. They have a dirty clod fight. They run through the forest and howl. It looks like fun, but my mind wandered. Max Records, who plays Max, has an adorable little face that I could watch for hours, and Jonze makes the most of it, from when he is mischievously indulging in a snowball fight with his sister's friends to his heartbreak when they crush his 'igloo' and his sister does nothing to stop them. My favorite scene is when his mom is at the computer working and worrying, and he's on the floor, idly pulling at the toe of her pantyhose. She asks him to tell her a story, and she types it out. The camera looks up at her from under the desk and down at Max from each other's perspective, and you can see the love between them.
Karen O's soundtrack is absolutely gorgeous and so, so appropriate. When Max is being a terror in real life or running through the forests with the Wild Things, the music crescendos to a gorgeous type of howling that recalls the fake 'Indian brave' noises kids make with their hands and mouths. It's wild and wondrous and perfect.
Overall, Wild Things is a mixed bag. It's gorgeous but slow in parts. It will either scare or bore children, and while I'm of the opinion that children do enjoy a good scare or two, I'm not convinced this is the movie for them. The people who will enjoy it most are those who probably the ones who loved the book, although they might find it drawn out and overly explicit -- yes, Max and Carol the Wild Thing are one and the same, and yes, Max learns that leading a family is hard and realizes that his mom is having a rough time of it, and he has to go home, etc. Eggers' pen definitely left its mark on Wild Things. But I think in the end, it's better to have movies out there like this than another piece of crap Couples Retreat-type movie, and I hope that WB's gamble pays off. When creative directors can get studios to give them cash to realize their dreams, film-goers also profit.
-- Jenni Miller
(All images courtesy Warner Bros.)