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
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