Warner Bros. // 2009 // 101 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // March 2nd, 2010
What a year 2009 was for so-called "children's movies" -- films aimed at younger audiences but which were clearly equally geared towards more adult sensibilities. We had Henry Selick's dark, creepily beautiful Coraline. Pixar continued their unparalleled winning streak with Up. Wes Anderson made another Wes Anderson film, only this time used stop-motion animation and called it The Fantastic Mr. Fox a children's film. And, finally, the only live-action film of the bunch: Spike Jonze's long-in-the-making adaptation of Maurice Sendak's beloved children's book Where the Wild Things Are. Hailed as a masterpiece by some and intensely disliked by others, the film is now taking its bow on Blu-ray. How does it measure against 2009's crop of great children's films?
Expanding Maurice Sendak's 338-word children's book, Where the Wild Things Are finds the almost dangerously precocious Max (newcomer Max Records) not sure where he fits in his own life anymore: his sister has no time for him, and he's feeling threatened by the fact that his mother (Catherine Keener, Friends with Money) has started seeing a new guy (Mark Ruffalo, We Don't Live Here Anymore). After a particularly contentious encounter with his mom one night (in which he bites her), Max runs away to the magical land of the Wild Things -- giant, furry creatures who live to play and roughhouse, but who each conceal secrets and hidden sadness (their leader, Carol, is voiced by James Gandolfi; Catherine O'Hara, Chris Cooper, Paul Dano, Forrest Whitaker and Lauren Ambrose supply the others). Quickly sensing one of their own, the Wild Things make Max their king. Let the wild rumpus start.
Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are is a very good movie. A very good movie. I'm not sure if it's a Great movie -- I hesitate to call it a masterpiece -- but only because I think I need to live with it longer. I can say that it's beautiful and timeless -- the kind of movie I would have loved just as much as a child as an adult, but for very different reasons. It's a dark movie, and at times almost oppressively sad. It may be hard to revisit in the future, as I didn't always like the way it made me feel. That says more about me than about the film, which clearly works as intended.
The world can be a difficult place for young boys. It's not something that's talked about often -- or even recognized -- but it's true. That's not to take anything away from the difficulties of being a young woman, which is equally challenging but presents a wholly different set of problems. But the world doesn't always understand boys -- particularly imaginative boys like Where the Wild Things Are's Max (and, to some extent, the younger version of me). It doesn't understand their energy and spirit, misplaced as it may be sometimes. It doesn't understand their need to create a universe that's entirely theirs and live within it. And when they finally grow frustrated by being misunderstood for too long, it doesn't understand why their energy can turn to anger. It's a confusing and possibly volatile mix of emotions, and it's never been captured or articulated better than in Where the Wild Things Are.
It's tough to talk about Where the Wild Things Are, because it's the kind of film that doesn't just inspire strong reactions but actually requires them. Spike Jonze (who has made only three movies in 10 years, all of them terrific) intensely personal and expresses such a singular vision that it shouldn't just be dismissed with an "I like it" or "it's not really for me." It's the kind of movie that has to be spoken about in big, sweeping strokes, and that's a lot of pressure not just for a movie but for its critics, too. It's technically perfect, all gorgeous photography and rough-and-tumble handheld camera work. The Wild Things themselves are a masterstroke, combining physical suits and puppetry with CGI-assisted facial expressions; every one of them is a fully-realized, real character (as someone who grew up loving all things puppet and soft and tactile -- children's toys come to life -- I would have gone absolutely crazy over the Wild Things if the film had come out when I was kid). Max Records doesn't give a performance as much as he actually is Max: wild and charismatic, mischievous and excited about the world but barely in control of himself. He's a perfect fit for the role and he embodies everything that's visceral and immediate about the film.
But what I'm not touching on at all is just how melancholy the movie is. It may be the darkest, saddest, most grown-up children's movie I've seen in a long time (possibly ever), and while that's not a strike against the movie it may keep people away from Where the Wild Things Are. Each of the Wild Things represents a different side to Max's psyche, and they're not exactly happy monsters. They're scared and lonely, sad and jealous. They're wounded, and like Max they're afraid of being abandoned (by his sister, who has grown up and found her own group of friends, or by his mom, who has a new man in her life). Where the Wild Things is, in many ways, a movie about the death of childhood; about letting go of those mixed-up emotions and growing up. I know I'm supposed to see that as a positive thing, but, like Jonze, I can't help but find it more bitter than sweet. There's no going back, and Where the Wild Things Are is one of the few movies with a heart exposed enough to admit that.
Where the Wild Things Are, not surprisingly, looks very good on Blu-ray. The 2.40:1 image is presented in full 1080p, VC-1-encoded HD and is often quite striking. From the muddy, matted fur of the Wild Things to the desert landscape and perfect blue skies, detail and color are both very well represented. The image boasts a nice amount of depth and no obvious flaws or digital tinkering. Still, in some of the darker nighttime sequences -- and there are several -- characters and objects can become difficult to make out and some shots are a bit on the soft side on occasion. I suspect both of these issues are more by design than technical oversight, however, and am really happy with the HD transfer overall. The 5.1 DTS-HD audio track is better even than the visual transfer, providing a warm, immersive audio experience without ever becoming obnoxiously over-the-top. It's a terrific track and helps add the seemingly messy but meticulously-crafted beauty of the film.
As a director, Spike Jonze has always been rather enigmatic and reclusive when it comes to discussing his own work, so don't expect a great deal of analysis or insight from the Blu-ray's special features section. Instead, it's mostly a collection of featurettes that give a sense of what it was like to create the film and to be on the set. Following a standard "HBO First Look" making-of featurette, there's a pair of pieces on child star Max Records ("Max and Spike" and "The Records Family") in which it's very obvious why he was chosen for the film; he and director Jonze are kindred spirits. "Carter Burwell" is a short profile on the film's composer (for the score; the brashly fun songs were provided by Karen O and the Kids) and how he went about trying to create music that can't be tied to any particular genre or period. "Maurice and Spike" is a very short piece on the book's author and director Spike Jonze, and it's the most time spent (only about three minutes) on the connection between the book and the film. "The Absurd Difficult of Filming a Dog" is exactly what it sounds like: a short bit of behind-the-scenes footage from the filming of a scene late in the film. The rest of the featurettes are more about the fun that was had on set: "The Big Prank" and "Vampire Attack" both focus on practical jokes (of sorts) and "The Kids Take Over the Picture" spends time with the kids on set.
The final bonus feature is possibly the most interesting: "Higglety Pigglety Pop! or There Must Be More to Life," a nearly half-hour short film (based on another story by Sendak) about the adventures of a dog. Forest Whitaker and Meryl Streep provide voices for the charming inclusion.
I'm still not convinced that Where the Wild Things is a full-blown masterpiece. It's not a perfect movie (which, by the way, I like; all of my favorite movies are a little bit messy), but I haven't yet made up my mind whether or not its flaws -- it's repetitive and somewhat unevenly paced, both intentionally and not -- will eventually stop it from growing on me more than it already has. The stuff that works (and there's a lot of it) is as good as anything else that came out last year. The final moments with the Wild Things -- Gandolfini's Carol in particular -- are as heartbreaking as those opening minutes of Up. The ending scene is perfect. I suspect the movie will continue to grow in me in the years to come, and that it's the kind of movie my son will grow up wanting to revisit over and over. It's the There Will Be Blood of children's fantasy films -- an ambitious, challenging movie that doesn't give away all of its secrets upon first viewing. It's a movie that needs to be seen again and stay with me for a while before I can fully appreciate it, and the fact that I want to give it that kind of time and attention suggests to me that Spike Jonze has created something truly special.
I'll eat it up I love it so.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 101 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Short Film
* Digital Copy
* Official Site