Monday, January 20, 2014

#1,253. Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

Directed By: Spike Jonze

Starring: Max Records, James Gandolfini, Catherine O'Hara

Tag line: "Let the wild rumpus start!"

Trivia: Initially, Warner Brothers studio was so unhappy with Spike Jonze's final movie (it was much less family friendly than they imagined) that they wanted to re-shoot the whole $75 milion project

Based on Maurice Sendak’s 1964 award-winning children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are had been stuck in development hell since the early ‘80’s, at which point Disney planned to turn it into an animated feature. It wasn’t until director Spike Jonze joined the project that the idea of a live-action version took root. 

Having already helmed Being John Malkovich and Adaptation - two films teetering on the edge of reality that, at the same time, convey potent emotional truths - Jonze’s unique vision proved the perfect fit for Sendak’s tale, resulting in a truly amazing motion picture.

The story centers on a young boy named Max (Max Records), who has been feeling neglected as of late. Ignored by his teenage sister Claire (Pepita Emmerichs) and none too happy that his single mom (Catherine Keener) has started dating again, Max throws the occasional temper tantrum, going so far as to bite his mother one evening when she tries to calm him down. 

Angry and frightened, Max runs away from home and hops into a sailboat, which whisks him to a magical island where monsters are real. 

After befriending Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini), one of the island’s many monsters, Max is accepted into their group, and even becomes their king. But his inability to help his new friends solve their conflicts proves a source of frustration for Max, and forces him to reflect on his own emotional issues.

Where the Wild Things Are is a children’s story with a decidedly dark edge. Max, who often lashes out at his family (at one point, he trashes his sister’s room), sees this exact same behavior occur on the island, most of it emanating from Carol. The problems arise when Carol’s good friend K.W. (Lauren Ambrose) starts spending a lot of time with her new friends, a pair of owls named Bob and Terry, causing Carol to feel neglected. 

At the outset, Carol was Max’s biggest supporter, defending him when the other monsters, including Judith (Catherine O’Hara) and Alexander (Paul Dano), expressed doubts that the young boy would make a good leader. After a while, though, Carol himself loses faith in the new king, who he thought would help bring K.W. back into the fold. When Max fails to do so, Carol reacts violently, and chases the boy through the forest (K.W. ends up protecting Max by hiding him in a most unusual place). Max does have some fun on the island (one of the best scenes features a battle with dirt clods), but it’s tempered at all times by an underlying sadness so strong that it’s almost tangible.

The monsters, which were designed by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, are a remarkable bunch, and even though they only provided the voices (different performers were inside the suits), Gandolfini and the others do a fine job bringing these monsters to life, infusing each with its own distinct personality (O’Hara’s Judith is incredibly pessimistic, while her boyfriend, Ira, voiced by Forest Whitaker, prefers to look on the bright side of things). Even more impressive is the performance delivered by Max Records, totally convincing as an out-of-control brat who eventually sees the error of his ways.

Where the Wild Things Are is more than the perfect embodiment of Maurice Sendak’s beloved children’s book; it’s a cinematic treasure, a beautiful film that, in time, could be considered a great one.

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