#47 - Where The Wild Things Are (Spike Jonez)
'Wild thing. You make my heart sing'
When it was announced that an adaptation of 'Where The Wild Things Are' was to be made into a film with man-child Spike Jonez at the helm, I suppose I went through the same kind of giddiness usually afforded to my fanboy friends whenever Batman dons a new cape, or Peter Jackson declares something interesting with Hobbits. It seemed the perfect coupling, Jonez, it appeared to me at least, had been directly influenced by the anarchy of Maurice Sendak's book, his whole career to this point seemed to have been shaped by the wild raucous ones, think the music videos (Walken dancing, bad break dancing in public places, Sabotage!), those Jackass stunts, his first forays into feature films (remember the sheer 'WTF' feeling you had when you first watched Being John Malkovitch?) and general personal demeanour spoke of a man shaped and defined by Sendak's Max and his child like obstinance.
Did the collaboration work however? The jury's still out on that one. To start with, how on earth do you turn a book, little under 40 pages long and blueprinted into most people's heads by the age of 5, who in turn have built Sendak's world again and again in their minds, to something on the big screen that would be able to please everyone in the process? The simple answer is you can't but Jonez must have known this; most people tend to know when they are asked to drink from a poisoned chalice, so never let it be said that he shirks from a challenge. Where does one take the source material, of what little there is ,and turn it into a feature length film? Where The Wild Things Are is so ingrained in the psyche of popular culture that the book means a lot to so many people in so many differing ways, which ever way you cut it, Jonez was never going to please everybody.
Jonez seems to have channeled the book directly in a way most studios would have cared to avoid, that's to say he focused on the bleak tone, the low energy droll, the greys and brown, the fear and loneliness rather than lighten the palate with more of Max's adventures and child like innocence in creating a world in that he is king to all he surveys: should he be celebrated or does it show a distinct lack of understanding one's audience? Who exactly was he making the film for? The obvious answer would be for adults (or kidults), those that grew with the magic of the book, those around Jonez' age when they first heard the story of Max and how they would now relate now to the emotive issues of loneliness and fear.
Jonez' focus on the emotive aspects of Sendak's book has its critics and the loneliness of Max seems to have spoken to the director and it's this, slightly depressive tome, that fuels the fires of his detractors. As the big Christmas holiday all family fun film, 'Where The Wild Things Are', fails miserably and overall it's quite a solemn piece of work, it certainly isn't the film most families would have expected and I doubt most would have liked. Yet for fans of Jonez it once again demonstrates a willingness to defy expectations and to keep chipping away in his own idiosyncratic manner, it also signifies that obstinance (like that of our protagonist) that he will do it his way, despite studio pressures to lighten the film to the contrary.
What 'Where The Wild Things Are' actually does is highlight and criticise the self indulgence of adults and the ways in which we are encouraged to be selfish, petty, delusional and forever youthful. For Max, reasoning with any of the array of monsters he's now king of becomes a task in itself, all seem to be preoccupied by their own inner angst, unreasonable desires and self-pity, every irrational behaviour, no matter how violent, destructive or just plain stupid is explained away in somewhat pseudo, psychobabble lifted from a best-seller self help guide. It's as if Jonez', with help from co-writer Dave Eggers, is using this beloved children's story as a mirror to his generation, a kind of 'stop the pouting. Listen, the world is bigger than you' fable, which is pretty radical when all he was meant to be doing was filming a kid's film for the Christmas market.
That's not to say this is a maudlin, navel gazing piece, Where The Wild Things Are may well look a little deeper than the average 'family film' but it still has its cake and wants to devour it too. For starters the monsters are a treat and lifted straight off the page, voice artist work is top notch (especially Chris Cooper and Catherine O'Hara as the dreary Judith) and there's some great black comedy, some great slapstick, as well as frolics, anarchy and loudness. It has all the markings of a straight 'A' box office 'crowd pleaser' but, like all subversives working the system, there is something different about 'Where the Wild Things Are' and that confuses and disturbs some people and, for not being what it was supposed to be, it gets kicked. I for one, although stating here and now that this is not his best work but an enjoyable distraction all the same, am glad theat Spike Jonez attempts to rocks the boat in his own understated ,weird little way and that he shall continue doing so for many years to come.