Spike Jonze started off as a director of music videos of considerable flair and no little humour. Buddy Holly for Weezer, It’s Oh So Quiet for Bjork, and the fantastic Praise You and Weapon of Choice for Fatboy Slim are up there with the very best. He was involved with the Jackass team. And then he directed a full-length feature, pretty much unlike anything else: ‘Being John Malkovich’. So when I first saw the trailer to his new film Where The Wild Things Are, I was hugely excited. The Arcade Fire song and amazing visuals make it perhaps the best music video of his career.
The original book is made up of only a dozen sentences and barely 340 words, and is illustrated throughout with amazingly distinctive images that have created massive affection among generations of fans.
Yet Jonze has taken a live-action approach with a real boy in a real world, and he’s kept the place where the Wild Things are as a real location, and used performers in suits to create the Wild Things. He’s been accused of making a glorified video, of missing the charm of the source material, and of turning a children’s book into a navel-gazing film for adults. But in my opinion, he has made a tremendously daring, original and moving film about childhood, filled with wonder and no little danger, with tremendous performances from his whole cast.
At the risk of repeating many other reviews, this is definitely not a film for younger children. My daughters (7 & 4) are pretty cine-literate and enjoy both animated and live-action films, but I’m certain I liked this much more than they did.
The central performance of Max is truly fantastic. He’s a very angry and troubled boy, filled with uncertain rage. In a very real depiction of the self-centredness of childhood, Max is convinced that everything that anyone does is a personal attack on him. The opening sequence is heartbreaking, as Max experiences the thrill of his imagination and adventure in the snow-cave he has built: then a thrilling snowball fight with his elder sister’s friends leads suddenly to despair, humiliation and rage, a retaliatory act of violence, then remorse and sorrow (all in 10 minutes). It’s one of the two best openings to a film I’ve seen in ages: the other was in ‘UP’, where the initial montage was both funny and moving, but in a very different way. Pixar’s colour palette throughout that wonderful film is astonishing, the designs are fantastical and there is always a lightness, a hope, and no little humour that keeps the film very accessible for all ages.
In contrast, Where The Wild Things Are is a pretty dark film in every sense. The colour palette is muted and quite dark, full of browns and dark golds. Deep shadows are contrasted beautifully with shafts of sunbeams. Quite long sequences have very little soundtrack. Max is often framed in close-up, a troubled, almost haunted child. We are forced to focus on his face, silent but with all sorts of emotions brimming over from within.
The excellent set-up gives us a solid platform for understanding why and how Max could envision the place where the Wild Things are. And when we arrive, still there’s no easy introductions or pandering to the audience with overt exposition. Max scales a crumbling cliff face at dusk, with only distant flickering fires to guide him. He creeps around a forest while these huge unnamed beasts bicker and argue, violently destroying what appears to be the home of one of them.
The ‘wild rumpus’ is pretty aggressive. Max and his alter-ego Carol are overflowing with violent energy, which makes for some exhilarating, but also at times unsettling sequences. They’re wonderfully filmed, with a lot of hand-held camera work highlighting the scattered, kinetic world-view of a young boy. But this sometimes makes for a tough watch on the big screen.
Similarly, there’s genuine menace from many of the Wild Things, especially Carol. They are all beautifully portrayed, with terrific CGI work on their facial tics, and the voice work by the cast is also great. Despite the pretty stellar cast, the actors’ voices never overshadowed the genuine characterisation of The Wild Things, in a much more mature and sophisticated way than most animated family-oriented films these days. Each of the beasts is portrayed as a different aspect of Max and his (real-world) environment, but this is never explicitly explained, ans is something my daughters didn’t grasp.
But amidst all this fractured energy, and unsettling threats, I believe Jonze has really grasped the heart of Max’s character:
…he wanted to be where someone loved him best of all…
The scenes with Carol’s models are simply gorgeous, their fortress is astonishing, and there are lovely moments of calm with K.W. The final scenes, in which Max ‘found his supper waiting for him and it was still hot’ is short and beautifully staged. There is hope, but it’s not overplayed: there’s certainly no Big Hollywood Ending.
If I’m honest, I’d love to watch it again without my daughters. There are many nuances and layers to pick up on. I do think the way it’s been marketed “There’s one in all of us” is a bit much, because it never celebrates Max’s wildness. Jonze’s film tells an uneasy story of a disoriented child and his struggle to connect with others. I really, really liked it.