Saturday, 19 December 2009

Cinema: Where the Wild Things Are

Wicked uncle? Looking for an outing to trouble the little ones and their parents over the Christmas period? You could do worse than march them off to 'Where the Wild Things Are', Spike Jonze's adaptation of Maurice Sendak's 300 word masterpiece into a full-length feature.

When talking movies, I've had plenty of parents extol the virtues of some animation or other, even persuaded me to watch one in the company of their darlings. Most often they're written-by-numbers, producers standing over the scriptwriters with their checklists, ticking down the demographic boxes. Yes, I did notice the adult joke no child would ever get - but I also saw it coming, put there to ensnare me into saying just that. It's grown-ups that buy the DVDs and pay for the tickets, you see. And if you can keep them in the movie theatre rather than round the corner having a snifter, all the better.

Spike Jonze turned down my favourite film of the year - he produced, but opted not to direct, Charlie Kaufman's 'Synecdoche: New York' - to work on this project, so it better be good. He also turned down the usual suspects to write the script with Dave Eggers, whose 'A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius' grew out of the death of both of his parents, leaving him to bring up his eight-year-old brother Toph, giving him more empathy than most for a child coming to terms with personal tragedy - in Max's case, the divorce of his parents and isolation from his sister and peers - by going wild.

Not that Max is so out of control you can't immediately imagine yourself as him in his world, at least if you have known the sadness of a life lived in the imagination, and the satisfaction of knowing it is the only life worth living. Max is a lone wolf, but he also wants to sleep in a pile, just like the rest of us. He bites his mother, but doesn't intend on eating her, and is so disturbed by the prospect of the wild things eating him, he resorts to building a secret place in their shared space, triggering calamity in his wild paradise.

This is a movie that is about childhood, rather than for children, which isn't to say your children won't enjoy it. My walk down the aisle was serenaded by the merry chatter of kids at the cinema but once the lights went down, my viewing pleasure wasn't interrupted, so they were either enchanted or had settled down for a nap, probably doped up by mum with a teat or two of mulled wine. The first twenty minutes depict a child's life as it is - at least, how I remember it, not how most adults want it to be - lonely, mainly; craving attention but not knowing what to do with it; challenging, often, those he feels betrayed by.

Max introduces himself as 'an explorer who travels a lot.' When he runs away from home, his sailing over a year and in and out of a week and through a day to and from the night of his own room is a dream, so what - or who - are the creatures of his dream world? They are wild things, of course, but whereas in the book, we only grow to know and love them through their portraits - here, wonderfully rendered in three dimensions and voice by the likes of James Gandolfini and Forest Whitaker - in the movie, we spend over an hour in their company.

The wild rumpus of the first island scenes leave us concerned for the wolf boy's safety as the assorted wild things roar their terrible roars and show-off their terrible claws, but by the conclusion of their first confrontation with our little hero - so well played by Max Records, he may well join that short lineup of child Oscar nominees - they are revealed as a collection of awkward neurotics as sad and lonely as he is. This is the gamble on which the success of the movie depends: if you're disappointed by that thought, you'll be more so by its execution; if it's the inner workings of the mind that interest you most, you're probably already intrigued enough to be reaching for the listings pages in your local paper.

When Carol - the most confused, lovable and dangerous of the creatures - picks out a crown and scepter from among boyish looking bones to hail Max the new king, you worry for the boy, but as the action proceeds, his moments of danger are those of accident rather than design, being crushed chief among them. If the film struggles to retain the attention, it is in stretching this sequence of adventures, few of which appear in the illustrated 1963 original or its later animation, to fill 101 minutes; alone on the island, you sometimes forget what's going on back home, which is what the film is really about.

I'm still trying to get to the bottom of who - or what - these furry manifestations of human psychology are. They are strange rather than scary, the chase and fight scenes fun rather than frightening. Max's imagination is so vivid we know his imaginary friends include a fence post, but these cuddly but cantankerous big softies have no antecedents in his bedroom we're made aware of. Spike Jonze was the right choice as director, bringing much of the charm and novelty of his early video work to proceedings, but maybe he should've waited for Kaufman rather than gone with Eggers to make these horny teddy boys real. Ultimately, they seem to show-off more of the hang-ups of adults than children, perhaps explaining Max's decision to go back to his mum, proving that even for a boy pretending to be a wolf pretending to be a king, heart is where the home is.

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