An­i­mal col­lec­tive

Spike Jonze’s long-awaited film is a beau­ti­fully shot, hip-to-a-fault Freudian fan­tasy, but it will put most kids to sleep, writes Don­ald Clarke

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Review 2009 -

AD­VANCE WORD has sug­gested that Spike Jonze’s adap­ta­tion of Mau­rice Sen­dak’s durable Where the Wild Things Are might not be suit­able for chil­dren. Not that it mat­ters, but this does, in­deed, ap­pear to be the case.

The sur­prise, how­ever, is that, rather than be­ing in­ap­pro­pri­ate in the man­ner of The Ex­or­cist or I Spit on Your Grave, Where the Wild Things Are turns out to be in­ap­pro­pri­ate in the man­ner of a Philip Glass opera or a late novel by Henry James. Some younger in­fants may, it is true, run scream­ing from the tit­u­lar id-mon­sters, but many more will be over­come with fits of drowsi­ness and dis­trac­tion.

Well, there’s noth­ing wrong with that. If Jan Svankma­jer, the great Czech an­i­ma­tor, can make a pro­foundly dis­turb­ing hor­ror film from Alice in Won­der­land, then Spike Jonze, di­rec­tor of the bril­liant Be­ing John Malkovich and Adap­ta­tion, is within his rights to at­tempt a Freudian de­con­struc­tion (or what­ever) of this adored chil­dren’s book.

To be fair, the movie be­gins well enough. A young fel­low named Max is about to have a fall­ing out with his older sis­ter and his har­ried sin­gle mom. Frol­ick­ing in the sort of sooth­ingly blurred, suavely jig­gled cin­e­matic nowhere that Jonze of­ten cre­ated for his pop videos, Max over-ex­cites his sib­ling – just trip­ping over the thresh­old into adult­hood – and causes her to crush an igloo he has fash­ioned in the front gar­den. Later he catches mom (Cather­ine Keener) smooching with a new boyfriend (Mark Ruf­falo) and, af­ter throw­ing an Oedi­pal tantrum, sprints fu­ri­ously from the house.

Max Records (what a Jonzeish name!) quite cor­rectly in­jects as much venom as charm into his per­for­mance as the peev­ish hero, and the open­ing act sug­gests that the di­rec­tor could one day shed the post-mod­ern para­pher­na­lia and of­fer us a worth­while nat­u­ral­is­tic drama.

Prob­lems be­gin, how­ever, when Max finds a boat and sails across oceans to, well, where the wild things are. Pass­ing from re­al­ity to fan­tasy in a seam­less, per­func­tory in­stant, the boy seems only mildly sur­prised to en­counter an is­land pop­u­lated by squab­bling rel­a­tives of Harry the Mon­ster from Se­same Street.

Lean­ing more to­wards pup­petry and furry cos­tumes than com­put­er­gen­er­ated im­agery, the film­mak­ers have cer­tainly cre­ated an en­vi­ron­ment worth looking at. In this land, the sun never seems to rise more than a thumb’s width above the hori­zon and, as a re­sult, so­lar flares con­stantly ex­cite the un­blink­ing lens. Less trop­i­cal and more Tran­syl­va­nian than the forests of Sen­dak’s il­lus­tra­tions, the veg­e­ta­tion seems rooted in the com­post of pre-ado­les­cent angst.

What a shame, then, that the wild things’ so­ci­ety is so deathly un­in­ter­est­ing. Adapt­ing a very short wad of text (in­deed, it com­prises sig­nif­i­cantly fewer words than this re­view), Dave Eg­gers, pub­lisher to the hip­perati, has at­tempted to flesh out the in­hu­man char­ac­ters with var­i­ous jeal­ousies,


in­se­cu­ri­ties and neu­roses.

As a re­sult, what was once a pow­er­ful metaphor for hid­den forces within the everyday world has now be­come sim­ply an­other ver­sion – hairier, but only mildly scarier – of the everyday world. Slightly mumbly, proudly in­tro­verted, the wild things seem like the sort of crea­tures who might hang around Jonze’s loft lis­ten­ing to An­i­mal Col­lec­tive on a Sun­day af­ter­noon.

In­deed, the long mid­dle sec­tion of Where the Wild Things Are stands as a prac­ti­cal demon­stra­tion of the faux-in­sou­ciant ar­ro­gance that char­ac­terises too much art from (a now ag­ing) Gen­er­a­tion X. The crea­tures squab­ble, but they’re too cool to in­dulge in any­thing as amus­ing as slap­stick. The story mopes around a great deal but, dis­tracted by its new Ja­panese sneak­ers, it can’t be both­ered to main­tain any kind of worth­while or­der.

And then there’s the much­vaunted sound­track by in­die-Streisand Karen O and var­i­ous other self-im­por­tant slu­gabeds. A large part of this gang’s pose in­volves a pre­tence to­wards not car­ing, but the film seems so madly proud of its achingly with­drawn mu­sic – nurs­ery-rhyme war­bles com­bined with camp-fire strum­ming – that it fails to no­tice how un­com­fort­ably the melodies sit with the action.

Ul­ti­mately, though it has its mo­ments, Where the Wild Things

Are feels like an en­ter­tain­ment made by Brook­lyn-friendly hipsters for Brook­lyn-friendly hipsters. Mr Jonze, Mr Eg­gers and Ms O have done good work in the past and will do so again. But, just for tonight, they de­serve to be sent to bed without any sup­per.

The place for dream­ing: Max and one of the wild things

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