Where the Wild Things Are director Spike Jonze’s (Being John Malkovich Adaptation) ambitious adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book has been referred to variously as “experimental” and “art-house” — and only occasionally in a derisive manner — by numerous movie critics and journalists. For all of their negative box-office implications the labels do come with certain benefits the most important of which is a little-known loophole in the filmmaking code that renders certain films largely exempt from standard rules of story structure to which more orthodox films are expected to adhere.
That is they’re expected to have a structure. Where the Wild Things Are is above such trifles. Sendak’s source material with its 10 lines of text is largely devoid of any real storyline so the task fell to Jonze and his co-writer Dave Eggers to manufacture one. Given essentially a blank slate with which to work they used the opportunity to explore the id of a child reeling from the painful aftermath of divorce. And what a mind-bending journey it is.
Newcomer Max Records stars as Max a rambunctious young boy with a taste for mischief and an overabundance of energy. It’s a volatile combination if left unchecked and it eventually erupts in disastrous fashion one evening when Max’s exasperated overworked mother (played by Catherine Keener) has the audacity to invite her boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo on screen for all of a nanosecond) over for dinner.
Confronted by the alarming sight of his mother sneaking a kiss with a man who clearly isn’t his dad Max acts out in hideous fashion prompting a similarly hideous overreaction from his mortified mom. Stung by her harsh words Max makes a break for it running away to a wooded sanctuary on the bank of a river where he climbs aboard an unattended sailboat and is transported to a strange and distant land.
It’s there that he meets the titular Wild Things a close-knit if highly dysfunctional group of furry gargantuan beings with oversized heads and normal unaltered human voices. There are seven in all: sensitive temperamental Carol (James Gandolfini); amiable level-headed Douglas (Chris Cooper); skeptical smart-alecky Judith (Catherine O’Hara); patient avuncular Ira (Forest Whitaker); meek insecure Alexander (Paul Dano); tender affectionate KW (Lauren Ambrose); and mysterious intimidating Bull (Michael Berry Jr.).
And that’s it. There’s no villain to be found in Where the Wild Things Are. (At least not a tangible one anyway. I suppose “society” or “fear” might be considered among Max’s antagonists; then again “fear” may also have been Gandolfini’s character. I can’t remember.)
Together Max and his new companions play games destroy trees build forts and bicker — to what end it’s never exactly clear. As Max frolics about his imaginary world with his crew of overgrown H.R. Pufnstuf rejects each of whom is meant to symbolize an emotion of some kind it becomes increasingly apparent that there’s no real point to the proceedings.
Which is why there’s no resolution to Where the Wild Things Are either. And shame on you for expecting one. If you want a neat and tidy resolution go see Couples Retreat or some other “mainstream” release philistine. This is Spike Jonze’s playground and if you dare subject him to rules or limits of any kind he may just pick up his genius ball and go home.
The real brilliance of Where the Wild Things Are is how its director aided by the extraordinary work of cinematographer Lance Acord and his production design team is able to plug directly into the amygdalae of adults of a certain age and background effectively disabling their capacities for critical thinking. It could be the greatest Jackass prank Jonze has ever pulled.
Where the Wild Things Are is not a movie for kids and not because it’s particularly violent or scary — indeed it’s downright tame compared to the last Harry Potter flick. Children by definition aren’t nearly as susceptible to the film's naked appeals to nostalgia and as parents’ eyes well up while they watch it behind rose-colored lenses their offspring will be texting “WTF?” to their similarly bored friends as the film meanders toward its disappointing conclusion.
Freud on the other hand would absolutely adore Where the Wild Things Are particularly during its climactic sequence in which Max frantically fleeing a rampaging Carol literally leaps into KW's gooey womb which presumably represents the comfort and safety of a mother’s unconditional love. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if several years from now the movie becomes a fixture at child psychologists’ offices serving as a sort of multimedia Rorschach test to help therapists better understand their young patients. But that’s pretty much the extent of the film’s utility.
Here’s the real symbolism inherent in Where the Wild Things Are: Max symbolizes Jonze while the mother represents the director’s expectations for the audience. After Jonze runs off and blithely plays with our emotions for a few desultory hours giving us only ambiguity tinged with melancholy in return he expects us to reward him with a loving embrace and a hot bowl of soup.
It’s all rather childish.
January 31, 2003 6:11am EST
Some 150 years ago a woman Matilda Nixon was blamed for the kidnapping of two local children and hanged by an angry lynch mob her body burned and scarred by the ray of a nearby lighthouse. After Matilda was buried however the kids turned up unharmed. She now haunts the town of Darkness Falls in the form of the Tooth Fairy and seeks vengeance on the community that lynched her. The film's protagonist is the troubled Kyle Walsh (Chaney Kley) who as a child woke up and saw the Tooth Fairy trying to kill him. He has since left Darkness Falls but returns to help his childhood friend Caitlin (Emma Caulfield) after she informs him that her five-year-old brother suffers inexplicable "night terrors." The Tooth Fairy's Achilles heel is light so when a citywide blackout hits the town no one is safe. The story is completely hokey and sparse on details but it is guaranteed to scare the crap out of anyone--even the most faithful horror aficionados.
Staying true to B-movie horrors Darkness Falls doesn't splurge in the star department. Kley who appeared on the small screen in the series Touched by an Angel and Buffy the Vampire Slayer makes his feature film debut as Kyle. His performance is a little flat here and his reaction to the Tooth Fairy is a little too blasé--even if this is not his first encounter with her. Another TV alum Caulfield (Buffy the Vampire Slayer Beverly Hills 90210) is slightly more convincing as she goes from skeptic to worrier to believer in the sinister Tooth Fairy. As her five-year-old brother Michael Lee Cormie is a thoroughly irritating child actor whose soul purpose in the film is to be cute and act vewy afwaid of the dawk. When he is not busy batting his eyelashes Cormie's character spends most of the film in a hospital bed because we are told he suffers from sleep deprivation. Yet Michael is asleep in almost every hospital scene.
Scribes Joseph Harris and John Fasano churn out a screenplay that is highly derivative of Wes Craven Presents: They released last November which revolved around night terrors and things that go boo! in the dark. But while They's villains--little papier-mâché figurines slathered in K-Y jelly--evoked more laughs than scares Darkness Falls' Tooth Fairy has a more sinister appearance: a wretched winged creature draped in black rags that appears wherever light is obscured while making these gnarly breathing sounds. First-time helmer Jonathan Liebesman manages to evoke fear without heavy special effects or blood and gore but by preying on every child's primal fear--the dark--using tried-and-true scare tactics that for some forsaken reason still work. "Why don't we just keep driving? We're safe in the car " a passenger in a car suggests seconds before old Matilda comes crashing through the windshield. It's a typical horror formula that will (I am ashamed to say) get you every time.