Sunday, October 18, 2009
Where The Wild Things Are (2009) offers a new approach to a problem that has been developing recently in large-scale studio films for kids. More and more films are being based on what essentially are picture books, with narratives that can be summarized--or even read in their entirety--in less than a minute. The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, The Cat In The Hat, The Polar Express, Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs, Jumanji are all examples of brief diversions meant to help pre-schoolers to fall asleep being expanded into full-scale works. There have been many explanations for this, but I believe that the reasons studios finance these movies is that these are the only books that film production executives have actually read. Or actually can read.
So what to do with 90 to 120 minutes to fill up and a one-minute story to fill it with? Some films, such as Cat In The Hat fill it up with production expense and annoying noise. Some tell their simple little story real-l-l-l-l s-s-s-l-l-o-o-o-o-w-w-w. Spike Jonze has come up with a new idea for Wild Things, a book that is only 10 sentences long. Make a mumblecore movie for kids. Mumblecore is the perfect genre for filmmakers with actors, a setting and no story. It was created by young filmmakers with little or no resources--a digital camera, friends for actors, their own apartments for sets, and little life experience to write about, except their own embarkation into the world of adult relationships. So it is dialogue-driven and relationship-oriented. And its worst, it is draggy, self-indulgent and pointless. At its best, it reaches a hyper- or even meta-realism about young adult life.
Surprisingly, this works really well for Wild Things. (The screenplay is co-written by novelist and memoirist, Dave Eggers, who is having a heck of a year, given that his first film, Away We Go was completely brilliant. ) The book told children, it's OK to be angry, it's OK to let the wild things out and let them romp awhile, as long as you learn to let them go back into hiding when it's time. The film expands on that idea. Max's Wild Things have gone out of control and he leaves his home completely to go live with them for a while. But the Wild Things don't know how to live with each other any better than the other people in Max's life. They have some wonderful simple joys--sleeping in a big, warm furry pile (yes, the pile is scary at first, but then it is OK, because you're with your friends). And there is a terrific dirt clod fight and a really cool fort with underground tunnels and a fantastic tower on top and you don't have to let in anybody you don't like--and this voice I am imitating in my primitive way is the voice of the film. The entire film lives inside the head of a kid the way none of the expensive entertainments by Disney or Pixar or their imitators could ever do.
The child entertainers want to make everything all right, to soothe us, to homogenize experience into the formulas of narrative we find so comforting. But even as kids we know life to be formless, erratic, ebbing and flowing without pattern or, it seems, reason. Friends are really close and then they hurt us or leave us and they come back and they want everything to be all right again and we don't ever get to understand it--we just learn to accept it. And all this is stuff is hard, but we gotta learn to do it. So this is not an easy film for kids. But they will get it. And judging from the kids all around us at a matinee show, they will enjoy it.
I confess, I may not be the best possible judge for this film. My son, who grew up entirely in the age of digital animation was not completely convinced by the eyes and lips of the characters, which were evidently digitally grafted onto the actors romping in big furry character suits. For my own part, I was delighted by the low-key, almost improvisational acting style adopted by the voices of the Wild Things, so far from the over-emphatic voice acting that plagues so much animation, as if children could not understand anything that wasn't shouted at them. This movie knows that if kids are good hearing anything, they're good at hearing the stuff that wasn't meant for them. Wild Things is meant for them...and it isn't.