Unpopped: Where The Wild Things Are

Unpopped, the column in which I, Mel Dale, will be sifting through the unpopped kernels of cinema (aka films I haven’t seen).  I’ll watch one of these movies that has eluded me and comment on it here.  I may or may not like the film I watch, but I’ll be sure to provide my honest and fair opinion.  One of our goals for this site is to avoid negativity as best as possible while fostering a community for film lovers to connect with one another.  With that in mind, I want to encourage all of you to suggest new films for me to watch in the comments section every week or hit me up on Twitter (@mel_dale) and suggest a movie title to me using the hashtag #unpopped.  I’ll do my best to pick from your suggestions and look forward to all the new stories and worlds I’ll get to enjoy because of it.

Like most people my age, I grew up reading the stories of Maurice Sendak.  I remember going to the library with my brother and mother and spending hours pouring over the beautifully illustrated pages of Where the Wild Things Are (and my personal favorite of Sendak’s, Seven Little Monsters).  If memory serves right, I recall my brother being really attached to Where the Wild Things Are back then.  Although it was never a favorite story of mine, I remember it as part of my childhood just the same.  When the announcement came that Spike Jonze was adapting the story as a feature length movie, I was honestly a bit skeptical of what the end result would be.  Although Spike Jonze is a remarkably creative director, there wasn’t nearly enough story inside Sendak’s book to fill a two hour movie, which left me concerned about what they would choose to pad the narrative with.  My concern eventually led to me not seeing Where the Wild Things Are during its theatrical release, despite the film having one of the best trailers of 2009.  Several years later, my interest in the film adaptation was still present and my hope for it was mostly restored by multiple positive endorsements from my friends.  With Target selling the Blu-ray for only $4 on Black Friday, my curiosity finally got the best of me.

What Works:

Where the Wild Things Are is an absolutely beautiful film.  The art direction, set design and creature effects all mix together to make a gorgeous, mostly faithful, visual representation of Sendak’s illustrations.  The film is full of rich textures and details that bring an incredible authenticity to the story despite the fantastic nature of the narrative.  Spike Jonze and his creative team chose to almost entirely use practical effects throughout the film, which is what allowed those little details to come off the screen so well.  The bizarre, otherworldly creature designs from Sendak’s book were recreated for the screen using costumed performers and complex puppets which pair beautifully with the multiple on-location, outdoor sets found throughout the film.  Similar to the magic Jim Henson and his Muppet performers found when they took their creations out of the studio and placed them in real locations, Spike Jonze sets up numerous breathtaking shots featuring the odd juxtaposition of monster suit/puppets living in our real and tangible world.  Alongside all of these effects, and providing the film’s greatest grounding aspect of the story, is the excellent performance by Max Records as the story’s central character, conveniently also named, Max.  Where the Wild Things Are was Max Records debut as an actor and he really does a great job pulling the audience into his character’s world by displaying relatable and authentic emotions throughout the film.  The special features on the Blu-ray go into extensive detail of how Spike Jonze and company worked tirelessly to make the set and filmmaking experience a fun place for a child to be and it really does show in the finished product.  Max comes off as a real, albeit troubled, boy that the audience almost immediately connects with.

What Doesn’t Work:

Spike Jonze, who co-wrote the script with Dave Eggers, supplemented Maurice Sendak’s original story with a lot of additional backstory for all of the characters featured in the film.  Jonze, who had Sendak’s blessing and full involvement in the filmmaking process, definitely took the story of Where the Wild Things Are in a different, darker direction than I anticipated when sitting down to watch the film.  All of the characters in the film are broken and flawed, seeking in vain to find some comfort in an even more broken and flawed world.  Many, if not all, of the creatures Max discovers on his journey seem to embody the varied facets of his flawed nature, which is actually a really cool story idea, but it does make the movie a bit of a downer to watch.  My own memories of reading Sendak’s book are full of some of the isolation and loneliness Jonze explores in his version but, in my own remembrance of the original story, all of that loneliness is resolved in the final pages of the book; a resolution I felt was missing from my viewing experience with the film version.  Perhaps this is my issue alone, due to my own expectations for the film, but I never felt fully immersed in the story since I was always comparing it in my mind to what I had hoped it would be.  A subsequent viewing might alleviate most of my concerns and is certain to happen if only to revisit some of the beautiful design found throughout the film.

After my first viewing, I can’t say that I liked Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are.  The film left me wanting the comfort of my mother, and the warmth of my childhood home (heh, maybe that was the point?).  I absolutely love Jonze as a filmmaker and really appreciate all the effort he puts into his films.  Usually my disconnect with his work stems from his brand of storytelling and the themes he likes to play with, but, who knows, maybe I’ll like it the next time around.  It’s not unlike me to be a little harsh on a story on its first trip through my brain.  Please let me know what you thought of Where the Wild Things Are and don’t forget to include your suggestions for films you think I should watch for the column.

by Mel Dale

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