Friday, February 5, 2010

Where the Wild Things Are

Hello, Space Monkees.

I knew a certain day was coming.  The day that I would review a movie for the Q? that I absolutely hated.  Its an inevitability of being a critic, even if you are the most unprofessional one in the entire Internet (I'm not, but I'm in the running).  I feared it more than anything else, not knowing exactly how I could handle it if such a foe appeared.

But that is not this day!

Here's a story from my childhood that I think is one that everybody has experienced at some point.  You're a little kid, its getting late.  Your parents make you put on your pajamas and put you to bed.  But not really being tired (despite the yawns that escape without you even noticing) you immediately begin to scheme for ways to keep them in the room.  You ask for your teddy, who was in my case a little blue bear in a stripped nightgown named "Goodnight Bear"*.  Then you throw him to the ground so they can pick him up again.  Anything for just a few more minutes of being awake.  Eventually you ask for a bedtime story, and your Mom or Dad picks out of a little pile of children's picture books a little book with a forest on it, "Where the Wild Things Are".  Oh, how you loved that story.  You'd even ask for Mommy or Daddy to read it again.  And then again.  And somewhere in the ten sentences that composed that little story, you nodded off to sleep.

I think the tale of the bad little boy Max who wanders off to the land of Wild Things in his imagination is one that we all know.  In fact, the book is so old and timeless, that my own Mom was read the story by my Grandma.  What surprising is that despite the book being written in 1963, it took this classic tale nearly fifty years to finally be adapted to the screen**.  Though after seeing Spike Jonze's very original re-imagining of the story, I can tell you that there will be many more surprises along the way in this review.  This is a movie that has really caught the critics off guard.  They expected just another Disney-standard children's film like the excellent and silly "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs" from a few months earlier.  What they got was something completely different, something far more frightening.

A good place to start would be purely in art style.  If I were to imagine a "Where the Wild Things Are" movie, I would think it to be a cartoon with an art style similar to that of the book.  Instead, Spike Jonze gives us something unique.  Its live action mixed with CG, but in a new way.  Rather than having the human actors (well, actor) interact with a ball on a string while the boys at Industrial Light & Magic fill in the character, instead most of the Wild Things are made by performers in massive costumes, or animatronics.  Only the faces are CG animated.  It makes the creatures seem like giant stuffed animals, yet somehow far more real than even the impressive effects that "Avatar" supplied.  Despite the live action, you can still recognize the creatures from the original drawings.  Its an ingenious way to bring these characters to life, and something the movie really deserves credit for.  The world around them is just the natural majesty of our own world, in all its own magic.  The film is strikingly beautiful visually, though what isn't these days?  I fear that with so many gorgeous films and unique are going to spoil us eventually.  Adding to the brilliant atmosphere is the soundtrack, which is largely vocal and sung by what sounds to be an actually little boy (its actually Karen O, Jonze's ex).

Being an adaptation of a story that is, as I mentioned earlier, ten sentences long (I counted), the plot of this movie would naturally have to be expanded.  But how do you go about it?  Do you, like "the Grinch", focus on the title character and let Jim Carry make a fool of himself for two hours?  Do you just make up an entirely new story with the same basic elements like "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs"?  Or do you simply fail miserably in every way like "Cat in the Hat"?  Well, Spike Jonze had his own answer to the question, an answer so different from what anybody was expecting that the studio heads shuddered to even release this movie.

Like in the book, Max leaves home and goes to the faraway land, and becomes the king of the Wild Things.  More or less, the general patterns of the story remain intact.  The monsters don't get sent to bed without supper, but you get the idea.  This time when Max finds the monsters, you'd be hard-pressed to differentiate this movie from a horror tale.  The Wild Things are bitterly unhappy and divided, just over-sized children like Max himself.  In order to avoid getting eaten, Max claims himself to be a mighty king and becomes their ruler.  However no title can prepare him for the job.  He is still just a child, and he cannot possibly lead these Wild Things.  From the start, you can see a tragic ending careening right into these characters.  Throughout most of the movie, I was extremely frightened for Max himself.  In a world this dark, what will keep him from getting eaten once the Wild Things figure out that he is just a boy?

Each of the monsters are expanded and given personalities, an inevitability of expanding this tiny story into a feature film.  The most central Wild Thing is Carol, voice by James Gandolfini, from here on referred to as "Monster Tony Soprano".  Monster Tony Soprano ultimately just wants everybody to live together in a great city where they can be happy.  But its all falling apart around him.  His beloved K.W., voiced by Lauren Ambrose, here on referred to as "Monster Claire Fisher", is tired of all the fighting and is teetering on leaving for good.  MTS believes strongly that Max is a great king who will solve every problem, so much so that any expressed doubts reveal that furious Soprano temper we HBO viewers remember so well.

The movie manages to range very well from happy fun childhood adventuring to the worst of primeval terror during its 101 minute run.  At one point everybody will be lying together happily in a big pile, and at another moment they're ready to kill each other***.  Ultimately it all comes out looking less like the original story and more like "Lord of the Flies" with twelve-foot Wild Things.  I think what Spike Jonze was going for was not so much a movie for children, but a movie about childhood, using the monsters as living metaphors for the various child-like personalities people may have had or still have (in my foolish way I've been all seven at one point or another).  Max is taught the difficulties of parenthood, and just how immature he truly is.  This job is beyond him, and slowly but surely this truth is made clear to him.  He leaves the island with a much greater appreciation for the difficulties that his mother goes through, herself not being a perfect person, while raising him.

For that alone, I think this is a truly brilliant movie, easily one of the best of 2009.  However, the question that I think many people have asked still remains a difficult one:  is this movie for kids?  I hate to be the kind of person who would ever make the distinction between what a person should or should not see, but honestly I do not think they would understand the movie's real message.  Most would grasp the moral on some level, but they would be more confused as to what made the monsters so unhappy in the first place.  Why be so sad in a place that's so fantastic?  Since I can't recommend this movie for my own little relatives, I can't say this movie is a kid's movie at all.  And honestly, you can't fault this movie for being that way.

And so, the only way I think can end this review is an eternal truth that I think we can all understand:

"Wild Thing! You Make My Heart Sing!"

* The years have not been good to Goodnight Bear.  His nose has fallen off, and his hat is warped and stained with drool from where I chewed on it for nights on end.  His fur is dirty and caked with cat puke in a few places.  And worse, he only has one eye left, and the stuffing is sticking out of the socket.  Yet I can't find myself to throw it out.  I love him too much.

** Its been in Development Hell for nearly thirty years now.  Back in the early 80s, the development team that eventually became Pixar attempted to adapt the book with digital backgrounds mixed with 2D character animation.  What little they made was well...  not so great.  Another attempt came along with "the Grinch" with a brief teaser trailer being all that was made.  Spike Jonze's own version has been in the works for nearly half a decade, and its been a hard battle for him to get his vision onto the screen.  For that alone he deserves some credit.

*** SPOILER ALERT:  I'm referring to a moment where MTS ripped another monster's arm off!  "Hey, that was my favorite arm!"  And... we never gets it back!  My God!  Instead, for the rest of the movie the Wild Thing walks around with a pathetic twig sticking out of his shoulder that kinda looks like a hand.  Easily the most disturbing thing I've seen this side of Tim Burton...


  1. Have you played Disgaea: Hour of Darkness(or the PSP port Afternoon of Darkness or the DS port Disgaea DS)? It's what you get if you take Final Fantasy Tactics, give it a ten times deeper gameplay and Flonne, and then make the Job System complex as hell. You should really try it! If you use Action Replay to activate the "Bill will pass in council" code, it gets even better!
    (TIP: Give Flonne a gun, and don't use Monster-type units, they can't master weapons so they never get any better)

  2. (Wow, aren't we completely off-topic?)

    No, I haven't. I've never touched the Disgaea games, though since I've been asked to play them about fifty times, I guess I'll have to try one of them. What does "ten times deeper than FFT" mean? I thought FFT was plenty deep, not shallow at all. You're not using "deep" as a synonym for "complicated", are you?

  3. I'm sad to say that I did not see this movie. I don't trust movie based on books (or anything, for that matter) of my childhood. Sure, the occasional gem like may come out, but most are complete crap.

    Need I bring up the Series of Unfortunate Events movie? *shudders*

  4. You could read my review of it at
    (It sure is hard to write reviews in a language you're not native to)

    It's story is incredibly good(and it has both Mid-Boss and Flonne!), the game is fairly hard, the Reincarnation system is complicated, but offers great flexibility. The only problem really is the Dark Assembly where you have to bribe the senate for the smallest things, but that can be skipped with a cheat code. Also, every little thing in Disgaea makes a strange kind of sense, like, for shooting with a gun you need to aim precisely rather than being strong. The stat systems is much more complicated too.

    I posted it here since you don't like when people use your Talk Page at the FFWiki...

  5. I'm pretty sure I have an email account you can contact me on. However, I'm terrible with checking it thanks the mountain of Facebook alerts I get every day, so it might be a few days before I reply.

  6. Why don't you turn them off? You can go to settings -> alerts and check off all the boxes

  7. I remember this book too. It was read to me in preschool, multiple times (given that I could only speak Chinese and Vietnamese at that time...), and we even put on a little play about it. Good times. :)