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Making a Heart Sing
A film review of WHERE THE WILD TINGS ARE by Camus
"As a kid maybe you don't have the experience
to fully understand it, but I think the feelings are
just as deep – of love, hope, disappointment,
fear and anxiety. You don't understand them
and they are big and uncontrollable."
Director Spike Jonze


The book and movie title is a giveaway because it presupposes the deliriously primal answer: "In the fervent imagination of a child..." It's a great place to be but harrowing is not an adjective easily cast out by that swirling milieu of conflicted emotions and intense feeling. Max was unhappy, deeply unhappy, but I still wanted to see how he dealt with that sadness... Max's marvellous imagination is where the wild things are and that's exactly how it should be. They act as a lever that Max could pull and reaffirm what makes us all human, wild things and all.

Slarek and myself both wrote about the demise of mainstream Hollywood this time two years ago and I find it interesting to note that the latest Sight And Sound magazine (for non-UK readers, the only 'serious' film magazine the UK publishes) has finally acknowledged its passing in two ways. Firstly, there's the opening paragraph from Nick James in which he writes " thing that emerges is the extent to which the Hollywood mainstream has given up on the multi-layered, psychologically, gripping, finely crafted – in a word, human – films that once gave us so much to get excited about."

Secondly there's a letter published (revealing that the editors must be considering this radical change to their content) stating that S&S shouldn't even cover the mainstream. "By removing tedious reviews of tedious films," writes Ralph Pritchard, "...readers might have more of what S&S does best..." While it's hard to disagree, that dividing line is not so easily drawn when it comes to directors who are entrusted with mainstream budgets but who retain a viable and credible artistic licence. Firmly in that camp sits director Spike Jonze. I'm not sure I could have enjoyed Spielberg's Wild Things one hundredth (or even at all) as much as I enjoyed Jonze's.

Where The Wild Things Are is a half empty container of a movie and let me explain why that's a damn good thing. You may have a contrary opinion but I applaud movies that come halfway, set up the empty glass and allow you, invite you even, to fill it. I can understand why the movie has had such a troubled production. Finished in 2007, Warner Brothers was convinced it was too scary and idiosyncratic for an anodyne, easy-marketing campaign (they got that right) and after a lot of umming and aahing, the studio finally gave Jonze more money to make a few changes and at last, the Maurice Sendak classic was brought to the screen. It's not a typical Hollywood children's film per se (despite the high budget). If it were, given the minds of the execs that have thrown broken glass on its path to our multiplexes, we'd have a raft of pop-culture references and each 'wild thing' would have a T-shirt proclaiming what it represented (anger, shyness, doubt, mum, absent dad etc). Instead, that interpretation is left to you (yes, you!) and you will enjoy the movie or be disappointed by it depending on your own level of engagement. Embrace the wild things and the hug will be a substantial and emotionally satisfying one. If you pause, desiring narrative clichéd simplicity, the movie will lose you as quickly as an expenses claiming politician sheds public approval. I'd embrace them if I were you; if you feel like it.

I watched the movie with three thirteen year old 'screenagers' (Jesus, how absurdly relevant that is to the next generation) and the film baffled them because it did not make clear what the wild things were and how that fantasy narrative was supposed to play out. Younger viewers don't seem to have that problem. This absolutely fascinates me. Who gets it? Who doesn't? To me, this was one of the film's many strengths. Hollywood doesn't do ambiguous unless ambiguous has proved itself at the box office. The book has no such ambiguity. Children (or at least the handful I know) seem to accept the forest growing in Max's bedroom, his year-long trip to the island, his taming of the beasts and his subsequent hunger (for love and food) and his return from his imagination to his supper ("...and it was still hot."). In the book, Max never strays from his own bedroom and the fantasy is woven in with Max's more mundane existence. The book is also 327 words long – not exactly a perfect fit for a 100 minute translation to the screen.

The movie (which is significantly broadened but retains the anarchic and interior nature and off centre spirit of the source material) is a visual delight. Its title shot just pips Slumdog Millionaire's as the most arresting presentation of a movie title. With octogenarian author Sendak as a producer, you can't fault the film-makers' credentials but like Mel Brooks' off the wall call to get David Lynch directing The Elephant Man, whose idea was it to put Spike Jonze up for directing duties? It's utterly inspired. Perhaps it was producer Tom Hanks. Tom Hanks? It must be a beloved book for a great many.

Max, dressed in his wolf costume, is playing with the dog. He shovels snow outside and makes an igloo. He lies in wait for his sister and friends to come out of the house. A joyous snowball fight is ended by the smashing of Max's igloo. His sister is non-plussed. Max is very upset. Max's mother is not connecting with Max's feelings. Her work and potential boyfriends intrude on Max's playtime. He goes too far and in desperation, bites his mother and flees the house. Now, we are not in Kansas at all but he goes down to the seaside, gets in a boat and through a scary tempest he arrives on an island... There are no pointers to when Max's reality divided into fantasy (climbing into the boat is probably your best bet) but that's how it should be. On the island he meets several enormous creatures and dysfunctional is hardly the word to describe them. They are Max's ciphers and so are allowed illogic and behavioural idiosyncrasies – the wild things should not be tamed by narrative expectation. The lead wild thing, Carol, is smashing things up and it's something that Max feels he can do too. The wild things are confused by the funny looking little creature but he is crowned king and orders up a mighty rumpus and that there be a great house built...

The details are beautifully rendered. There's a lot of love on show here. Physical impossibilities resound and abound but with no tether to the mundane nature of Max's own reality, these impossibilities are presented as normal and that makes my heart sing (to obliquely quote songwriter Chip Taylor). As the wild things make a big pile (with Max at the bottom) I caught myself thinking about and worrying whether Max would be crushed... I routinely have the word 'idiot' written in reverse on my forehead sometimes. Look in the fecking mirror! This is Max's party, Max's rules, Max's world. This is a movie about that state of mind that Harry Potter found himself in when he brings back his mentor, Professor Dumbledore in a post-death delusion – his mind grappling with the barely solvable and allowing himself the fantasy of character creation to unlock the puzzle. Max loves and needs his mother. He's been cruel and heartless towards her. The wild things are his penance, his medicine, his path, a vigorous explosion of redemption to enable him to reunite with the one thing that is so important to him.

But the movie rests and falls not on the wild things but the performance of Max Records as Max. And I must say, Jonze gets some wonderful work from the boy. His rage and confusion are always credible and as Max doesn't need to know who the wild things actually are or what they represent, neither do we and so are free to interpret any way we like. It's clear from the media coverage that this divides critics and public alike. There's no doubt that they are creatures conjured up from Max's imagination. This much seems narrative-safe. What or whom they represent is completely up to you. In the book, the wild things don't have names. In the movie they do and it's a real stumper for me to find the lead wild thing (voiced with real gusto and vulnerability by Sopranos star James Gandolfini – more male than male) has the name Carol. Can it possibly be a reference to Sister Carol's lovely performance of 'Wild Thing' at the end titles of Jonathan Demme's wonderful Something Wild?

There's some contention over the wild things' name creation and in some cases name changing but I have no definitive answer at the time of writing despite a good hour googling. Sendak had named his wild things after relatives for subsequent iterations of the tale (in opera no less). But Carol – or the choice of the name Carol – still puzzles me. All three of my fellow cinema-goers asked why 'he' had a girl's name. Now, I do know that Carol Reed was no slouch as a film-maker and that he was a he but maybe it was Sendak/Jonze's way of not allowing us even the simplest interpretation of the identities (or indeed sex) of the wild things. Ambiguity is a mixed blessing but in the case of Where The Wild Things Are, the latter is true for me.

Where the Wild Things Are

USA 2009
101 mins
Spike Jonze
John B. Carls
Gary Goetzman
Tom Hanks
Vincent Landay
Maurice Sendak
Spike Jonze
Dave Eggers
from the book by
Maurice Sendak
Lance Acord
James Haygood
Eric Zumbrunnen
Carter Burwell
Karen O.
production design
K.K. Barrett
Max Records
Pepita Emmerichs
Catherine Keener
Steve Mouzakis
Mark Ruffalo
James Gandolfini
Catherine O'Hara
Forest Whitaker
Chris Cooper
release date (UK)
11 December 2009
review posted
6 Januray 2010