Sunday, October 18, 2009

Strange Journeys (Where the Wild Things Are and Away We Go)

Somehow I doubt a child's imagination includes a shaky hand-held camera. That's my main beef with Spike Jonze's adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are, a movie with reviews that are all over the place, but even the naysayers have found much to admire in Jonze's visual aesthetic while reserving the bulk of their ire for co-screenwriter Dave Eggers, whose contribution is reportedly as smug and twee as his literary body of work. Never having read anything by Eggers, I'll have to take his critics' word for it, but the script that he and Jonze fleshed out from Maurice Sendak's children's favorite (and one of mine as a kid) is elegantly structured with resonant thematic echoes. Nine-year-old Max (played by the natural young actor Max Records) is a creator of worlds -- of igloos and forts -- in order to compensate for feelings of powerlessness in the one he lives in. A child of a broken home, he loves his mother (Catherine Keener) to the point of overpossessiveness when she brings a new boyfriend home. A school teacher brings him worry with news about the sun dying out. Following a family squabble, Max flees by boat to an island populated by monsters whom he tricks into making him their king. Representations of people he knows -- and of his untamed id -- the creatures have been compared by more than one review to Dorothy's encounters in the Land of Oz.

The difference, however, is that The Wizard of Oz placed a striking visual demarcation between fantasy and reality, while Where the Wild Things Are is drab on both levels. Doesn't Jonze realize that Max's fantasy life should be more interesting, exciting, and easier on the eyes than his reality? The monsters are awfully downcast too. It's refreshing to see a movie where characters like these are played by giant puppets rather than consisting entirely of special effects, but between their unremarkable adventures and the undistinguished voicework (by James Gandolfini, Paul Dano, Forest Whitaker, Catherine O'Hara, Chris Cooper, and Lauren Ambrose), these supposedly badassed beasties are disappointingly tepid. In Oz, even the G-rated supporting characters had basic needs and desires. It's unclear what these Wild Things want besides sustenance; and even then they seem far too depressed to eat.

Eggers, along with his wife Vendela Vida, co-wrote the original screenplay for Away We Go, an amiable if ultimately forgettable road comedy directed by Sam Mendes in a rare non-Oscar-baiting mood. The premise contains a dash of autobiography mixed with screwball farce: An unmarried thirtyish couple (Maya Rudolph and John Krasinski) find themselves with an unexpected pregnancy, and travel the country to find the right place to start a family. Like many road movies, Away We Go is episodic and filled with a gallery of eccentric characters. I liked best Maggie Gyllenhaal's nightmare of a New Age mom, probably because she's the most vivid creation (more monstrous than anything in Where the Wild Things Are) and she brings the only major sparks out of Rudolph and Krasinski's performances. Not that they're bad by any means. The unconventional casting is a nice change of pace, yet while the two have a quiet chemistry I still found myself wishing for actors with a little more star power. Away We Go passes by harmlessly enough; too bad it doesn't get very far.


Adam Zanzie said...

Well Craig, as I've said on a couple of other blogs, I think that the most powerful thing about Where the Wild Things Are is the boldness with which it was made. The weaknesses stem from Jonze and Eggers' inability to really tackle head-on the adult issues that they're toying around with in the film.

If you ask me, the film is more admirable than it is enjoyable, and I was starting to get uncomfortable with the way the movie treats a subject like horseplay... even when I knew that it was absolutely spot-on. Max loves being the hitter. It's when he gets hit himself that fun turns into anger. While this is true of real life, I can't say I thought it was appropriate for the movie. Not that I'm advocating censorship or anything.

Did you ever see The Indian in the Cupboard (1995)? That was another movie where a kid discovers the horrible consequences that come with playing God. And, like Where the Wild Things Are, it was a good movie; but Frank Oz and Melissa Mathison did exactly what Jonze and Eggers are doing now. They raised a lot of serious questions that they weren't exactly prepared to answer.

I missed Away We Go becuse I suspected that it looked like, as you say, a forgettable comedy. I do like Sam Mendes, of course- I was outspoken particularly in my defense of Revolutionary Road last year- but this new film didn't look like a major effort from him.

Craig said...

Great thoughts, Adam. "Admirable more than enjoyable" - that's a good way to put it. Fair points about the script. I still feel that the flaws might have been overcome with a better (i.e., less annoying) visual approach. I don't understand these filmmakers who seem hellbent on denying us the basic pleasure of looking at their movies.

"Away We Go" is a minor work from Mendes, yet also possibly his most personal. I liked the Hal Ashby/Paul Mazursky look and feel of the picture (despite being nowhere near their league). It might be worth a looksee.

Hokahey said...

We think alike on this one, Craig.

"The difference, however, is that The Wizard of Oz placed a striking visual demarcation between fantasy and reality, while Where the Wild Things Are is drab on both levels. Doesn't Jonze realize that Max's fantasy life should be more interesting, exciting, and easier on the eyes than his reality?"

I was talking to some students about the movie - and I thought teenagers might like this movie better than I did - but we were on the same page, and one girl specifically said that if she had Max's problems, she would definitely escape to an inner world that was more inviting and exciting.

My main beef - an element that almost made me fall asleep and then contemplate leaving - is what you express here:

"The monsters are awfully downcast too."

The focus of my review is on that factor. What a glum bunch! I was so glad when Max jumped in his boat and left.

Craig said...


Well, if teenagers can't relate to the angst, then I doubt small children are going to be eating it up. I commented on your review that I thought Zombieland was actually closer in spirit to Sendak's original story. Glum was definitely the wrong approach. And with the few attempts at being menacing, I'm not sure the voice of Tony Soprano was the best option.

Samantha K said...

if i had watched WTWTA as a child, i'm sure it would have given me nightmares; i don't understand how they could even imply that children might be interested in this movie

Jason Bellamy said...

Catching up on posts I hadn't read in full ...

I agree with a lot of your criticisms of Wild Things, particularly that his adventure in that fantasy world isn't as interesting as his real world adventures. I disagree with you though on your knock of the hand-held camera. Or, maybe I do. I guess it depends on which scenes you're criticizing. I really liked the use of the hand-held cam early, when it shows Max's view as he's running. To me, that's exactly what it felt like to run as a kid: You ran so fast that the world around you bobbled and shook, but you still kept running all-out because you weren't worried about tripping or rolling an ankle or blowing out your ACL, which is how we start to think when we get older. That said, there might have been hand-held shots that weren't shot from Max's perspective that made less sense; but the technique never bothered me here.

On Away We Go: I think Rudolph is terrific, and, other than a really over-the-top ending, I quite liked it. Did I love it? No. It's a small movie, and appropriately it offers small pleasures. Maybe that's why I like the lesser stars, as if to underscore the casual tone.