Friday, October 23, 2009

Go There: Where the Wild Things Are

When I tell you that Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are takes me back to my childhood, I’m of course referring to the numerous moments when mundane objects – a wooden fence, a nylon stocking, a toy ship cresting the waves of blue bed sheets – are made to feel deeply magical or fascinatingly mysterious. I’m also referring to the “wild things” themselves, which in addition to being Maurice Sendak illustrations made flesh, er, fur also look like they crawled out of the brain of Jim Henson, who was my childhood auteur of choice. (This isn’t a coincidence: The costumes were designed by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop.) More than anything, though, when I tell you that this film reminds me of what it was like to be 9-years-old, like its main character Max, it’s because Where the Wild Things Are tickles memories of movies I watched repeatedly when I was that age, particularly Star Wars and The Wizard of Oz. Those classic films are filled with magic, mystery and costumed creatures, too, just like this one, but the three movies are united in my mind for a more important reason: they take place in lusciously tangible worlds.

I didn’t realized how much I’d come to miss environmental tangibility in movies until I watched Jonze’s film, but 30 minutes in I was painfully aware (again) of how often the physical paradises of old now get paved over by flat CGI parking lots. Jonze’s film isn’t without CGI landscaping – the fort Max designs with the wild things is a digital doozy – but the effects here are minimal and practical. Most of the film’s shooting, under the guidance of cinematographer Lance Acord, was done on location in Australia, marrying actual three-dimensional environments with actual three-dimensional performers – a combination that seems so simple, not to mention natural, but that has managed to become endangered in fantasy films. The results are awe-striking: boulders and cliff faces that evoke the Tunisia-as-Tataouine locales of Star Wars, gnarled forests that evoke The Wizard of Oz, rolling sand dunes that evoke Lawrence of Arabia, and so on. Max, in his furry white pajamas, isn’t the only one who gets dirty whenever there’s a rumpus; the beasts get dusty, too, and that’s significant.

The genuineness of these environments might not be consciously recognized, but it’s deeply felt. There’s an intimacy to these images that CGI-dominated films never match. Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings series got all sorts of hype for shooting in New Zealand, but those pictures don’t feel anywhere near this organic. How could they, when so much of their authentic detail is covered up by computer illustrations? For all the progress of computer-generated effects over the past 20 years, digital approximations of reality remain mostly sanitized visual pleasures. By comparison, Where the Wild Things Are is visceral and untamed. That makes it old-school. For someone who never understood why George Lucas thought the digital backdrops of his Star Wars prequels were an upgrade from the brick-and-mortar sets of the original trilogy, it’s an absolute joy to encounter a fantasy that requires no heavy lifting in order for its universe to come to life. Watching Where the Wild Things Are we needn’t squint. We needn’t convince ourselves. We needn’t suspend disbelief. We just watch.

I wish I could say that everything that happens in this film is as magical as the enchanted world in which it unfolds, but that’s not the case. In fact, dramatically speaking, Jonze’s film has more charm when it operates in the real world than in the one of Max’s fantasies. The opening scenes allow us to experience life through Max’s eyes and heart. We feel the rambunctiousness, playfulness and loneliness of childhood. We feel the security of small forts, and then we see how easily a 9-year-old’s sense of security can be crushed. We are reminded that a simple toy ship and a Valentine made out of construction paper and Popsicle sticks can be all-important treasures to a child. And we are put in touch with that too brief time when being in the company of our parents offered so much comfort that we were happy to lie at our mother’s feet just to be near her. If Jonze’s movie had been allowed to stay here, in reality, Where the Wild Things Are might have offered one of the most poignant renderings of childhood spirit since To Kill a Mockingbird. Alas, there are wild things to get to, and there are rumpuses to start.

Jonze and fellow screenwriter David Eggers can’t be faulted for following the path designed by Sendak, and in fact they do a fairly commendable job of creating a complete story that feels mostly faithful to the spirit of Sendak’s minimalist triumph. But inherently there’s a problem when the movie’s wild things don’t feel wild and when Max’s adventures in this faraway land aren’t as wondrous as the faraway land itself. A few rumpuses aside, the wild things spend most of their time brooding, whining and sulking. It’s still a treat to watch Max, played tremendously by Max Records, trying to figure out his place in this new world, but it comes at the cost of seeing his spirit swallowed up by these massively dreary creatures. When about two-thirds of the way through the film Max proposes a dirt clod fight to – get this – raise morale, it feels not like boundless fantasy but like an inmate’s improvised pastime. In that context the giant fortress Max builds with the beasts feels more like court-ordered hard labor for his initial bad behavior than a tribute to childhood imagination. Whereas Sendak’s book thrives on escapism, Jonze’s film is always dragging a ball and chain.

Still, there are worse places to be imprisoned. Though the drama is drab the visuals are vibrant. Jonze succeeds in transporting us to this fantasy environment precisely because he makes the fantasy so attainable. It is out of this world and of this world simultaneously. That said, I could have done without the vocal contributions of James Gandolfini as Carol and Catherine O’Hara as Judith, precisely because they are too of-this-world to fit the fantasy; at some point I stopped seeing the puppets and began to see their vocal puppeteers. Then again, it’s refreshing to see mystical creatures lumbering across the screen with real gravity and awkwardness, something computers are still learning to replicate. By the end, I was ready to be done with these friendly beasts, I admit, but I was heartbroken to leave their world. More fantasies should take place where the wild things are.


Richard Bellamy said...

Well, said, these are "massively dreary creatures," and you praise the film's visual strengths highly and persuasively. Alas, I don't share your paradoxical feeling here: "By the end, I was ready to be done with these friendly beasts, I admit, but I was heartbroken to leave their world." Their world was not nearly magical enough for me to make me feel sad to leave it. I was ready to jump in Max's boat and scram.

Daniel said...

Gosh, you really nailed everything I loved and loathed about this, even making me realize that I didn't like Gandolfini's voice for some reason (as usual, I could never articulate it nearly as well as you did). But all in all it's a visual feast that blows away so many contemporary films. Your description and mention of Star Wars also happens to describe why the recent SW movies failed to recapture the old magic. It wasn't just the fully-CGI characters, but the fully-CGI landscapes, too.

All in all I think I'd rather watch the official music video for Wild Things than watch the whole movie again. It made me long for Jonze's creative music videos as much as anything else anyway.

Jason Bellamy said...

Thanks for the comments, guys.

Daniel: Yeah, I do think the CGI landscapes are a huge part of the problem with the Star Wars prequels on many levels: 1) Most of them lack convincing depth and texture; 2) On a green-screen set there isn't anything for the actors to do other than the actions explicitly given to them in the screenplay, which is either fighting or talking; and if it's talking and Lucas wrote it, it ain't good; 3) Not to get all Methody, but I've got to think it's hard for actors to get into character when they can never actually act in real spaces. Put it all together and it just feels thin.

I was so happy to watch a fantasy that really took place somewhere. That was a rush, even though much of the film is something of a downer.