Tuesday, September 6, 2011

"Where the Wild Things Are" (2009)

Starring Max Records, James Gandolfini and Lauren Ambrose
Written by Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers
Directed by Spike Jonze
Rated PG - Mature themes, violence, frightening images
Running Time: 104 minutes
Trailer

Though rated PG and based upon a children's book, "Where the Wild Things Are" is far from what might be called a children's movie.  The main character is a child, and many of the characters behave in childish fashion, but again... this is not a film for children.  It may be considered a film about being a child, but I wouldn't be particularly enthused to show it to my children (if I had any).

Max (Max Records) is a young boy with a bit of an over-active imagination.  He spends his time making snow forts, dressing in his wolf costume, and inventing strange stories.  This doesn't quite endear him to others, who see him as a weirdo, and isn't helped by the fact that Max has a tendency to react by throwing increasingly violent temper tantrums.

One night, Max interrupts his mother's date with her boyfriend (Catherine Keener and Mark Ruffalo), throwing another tantrum when his mother won't come and check out his "rocket ship" that he's constructed.  He bites her when she tries to send him to his room without dinner, and then he takes off into the night.  He runs through the woods and eventually comes to a lake and finds a boat on the shore.  The boat takes him to a strange island filled with large creatures.

When the creatures threaten to eat him, Max constructs a story to claim that he is in fact the powerful king of the Vikings, and that the creatures should beware his deadly, head-exploding powers.  They accept him as their king, and he promises to keep them safe and happy and instructs them to construct a massive fortress where they can all live. But that safety and happiness is threatened by the tenuous power he has over his subjects, especially the volatile Carol (James Gandolfini), whose temper rivals Max's but with a key difference - Carol has the strength and power to actually do great damage in his rages.



Though I haven't read it in probably a good twenty years, I seem to recall that the book was, at best, a particularly sparse tome.  Here, it is expanded to a 104-minute feature with a good amount of dialogue, interpersonal relationships and more.  It takes a while for Max to make it to the magical island where the 'Wild Things' live, preceded by several scenes where we are slowly introduced to both his home life and typical mental state.  We see him worrying about the death of the sun after a science lesson, surviving a snowball assault from his sister's friends, and misbehavior at dinner time.

Once we're finally on the island, we discover that the creatures mirror the film's overarching tone: everything about this movie is sad and depressing, almost as though this film were a lament.  The creatures live in fear of Carol's temper, which has caused a rift between him and KW (Lauren Ambrose) over her befriending of two owls named Bob and Terry.  Max's behavior around them always seems to backfire - his idea that they have a 'war' with dirt clods leads to a fight when it becomes too brutal, his attempts to bring KW, Bob and Terry into the group without considering Carol's feelings enrage Carol, etc. 

Much of the film is structured like this, as Max attempts to do things to have fun that seem to have unintended consequences.  By the end, it's obvious that this is the message of the film, as Max learns by watching Carol just how obnoxious his behavior is at home for his mother.  The problem is that it's a bit of a slog getting there.  It's an impressive technical production, to be sure, and the film is loaded with often gorgeous imagery, but it's just all so... down.  After a while, my attention began to drift over and over again because I was just waiting for something nice to happen in this film.  It seems like the sort of movie where whimsy and fun would be a given, but these things are in short supply in "Where The Wild Things Are."

I don't think I can really recommend "Where The Wild Things Are," to be honest.  It's not what I expected going into it, and I'm not particularly certain I liked what I got out of it.  I think the film could have been a bit more lively, even considering the message and subject matter at hand.  It could also stand to lose a few minutes of running time, eventually it feels like it just goes on too long.