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The Auteurs Daily: Where the Wild Things Are

The Auteurs Daily

Where the Wild Things Are

Spike Jonze and Wes Anderson, born just months apart in 1969, have both adapted classic children's books this year. Anderson, who often frames his meticulously arranged sets as if they were pages from a decades-old Caldecott Medal honoree, sees his Fantastic Mr Fox (entry) open the London Film Festival on Wednesday. Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are has seen the far bigger PR build-up (the best of it being the team's own blog, We Love You So); it opens on Friday, but the reviews are already coming in.

"Maurice Sendak might say that where the wild things are is a place where children go when there's too much sadness in their lives," writes Ed Gonzalez in Slant. "In Spike Jonze's much-anticipated film adaptation of Sendak's classic children's book, we understand this world more than ever as a stirring projection of a nine-year-old boy's troubled psyche, a place of vast deserts and sinister forests and ginormous monsters who build homes and playgrounds seemingly designed by Richard Serra and whose behaviors parallel those of the humans in the tyke's life, and in the case of the particularly fearsome Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini), the father who is conspicuously missing from it."

"Jonze's film is a different animal from Sendak's," writes New York's David Edelstein. "It's tamer and more domesticated, and its characters come with a backstory. As with many compact works, to expand is to decompress and diminish. Jonze, who wrote the script with Dave Eggers, fills in too much of the life of Max (played by Max Records - his real name, fancy that), now a lonely casualty of his parents' divorce who freaks out when his mom (Catherine Keener) gets frisky with a date (Mark Ruffalo). One alteration is unpardonable: Max dashes out of the house and into the woods instead of getting sent to bed without supper, so there are no bedroom walls melting away and no waves rolling in - one of the book's most archetypal images. No warm supper awaits Max's return. What can you say? Bad adapters, bad. But once the boy is in his boat being tossed on the waves, things go swimmingly. That's when Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are begins to cast a spell all its own."

But the New Yorker's David Denby is disappointed to find that the Wild Things themselves "turn out to be a discontented and quarrelsome bunch... [T]he creatures all sound like peevish adults elbowing one another out of the way at the smoked-fish counter at Zabar's.... After their initial burst of energy, they fall into a funk, and the movie seems to be less about liberation than about futility."

"Thematically, comparisons to everything from The Wizard of Oz to Coraline are not out of order for this flight of fancy on the part of an emotionally neglected 9-year-old boy," writes Variety's Todd McCarthy; "the driving impulse to escape an oppressive real life through creative fantasy is the same in all these books-to-films, as is their success in speaking simultaneously to children and adults. At the same time, contrasting Wild Things to two such superlative works in the same vein sharply shows up the new film's lack of density and complexity."

Speaking of Oz, by the way, Jim Emerson zooms in on a discussion of the film in Newsweek's roundtable with Sendak, Eggers and Jonze.

"With Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, Spike Jonze built up a reputation as a quirky auteur, so it's hard to believe that Where the Wild Things Are is only his third film, and his first in seven years," notes Brent Simon in his review for Screen. "Any discussion of Where the Wild Things Are must begin with its highly imaginative look, which delightfully blends conventional puppetry with more modern techniques. The creatures are all portrayed by actors in six- to eight-foot tall costumes created by the Jim Henson Company, with some additional animatronics and computer-generated faces. Despite their outlandish appearances, the characters have recognizably human form and traits - they shift their weight, and slouch. These design choices help give the movie a tactile pleasure; it's a fantasy that isn't slick and polished, but feels 'real.'"

 

Spike Jonze

Now then. That build-up I mentioned earlier could be said to have begun in earnest with Saki Knafo's big cover story for the New York Times Magazine in early September. Scott Timberg has a nice backgrounder in yesterday's Los Angeles Times. Profiles of and interviews with Jonze in between: Chris Heath (GQ), Chris Lee (LAT) and Shane Smith (Vice). Meantime, Spike Jonze: The First 80 Years runs on at MoMA through Sunday.

For New York, Logan Hill asks Karen O about composing her first soundtrack.

And then there's the book, which many have been more than happy to revisit. In the Boston Globe, for example, Roger White tracks the "ancestors, distant cousins, and even offspring on the Wild Things' family tree." It's "Wild Things Week" in New York City, today through Friday, and nycgo lists the bulk of related events; also, Steven Heller interviews Sendak. Meantime, in Haaretz, Joel Schechter considers the "Jewish Experience and Maurice Sendak."

Bruce Handy in the New York Times: "Obviously, many millions of children have loved Where the Wild Things Are - there are more than 19 million copies in print around the world - but I was struck, while conducting an extremely informal survey of a couple of dozen friends and a few professionals in the field of children's literature, by how many said Sendak's work had eluded their younger selves and/or their own offspring."

The Morning News asks its readers and staff, "What is your most beloved children's book?"

The Wild ThingsUpdates: How could I forget to mention that, back in August, as you may well remember, the New Yorker ran an excerpt from Dave Eggers's novelization of the screenplay for the adaptation as "Max at Sea" - and then interviewed him about it.

Ward Sutton's latest comic for the Barnes & Noble Review: "Dave Eggers's Wild Rumpus."

Anne Thompson: "Am I glad I saw this movie? Yes. But did it need to cost $100 million? No."

The Playlist reports that Jonze's doc on Sendak, Tell Them Anything You Want, has made the Academy's shortlist of best documentary shorts.

Another interview with Jonze: Scott Plagenhoef at Pitchfork.

Online listening tip. IFC's Matt Singer and Alison Willmore coin the term "melancholgia" to describe the tone of the film and then discuss "the recent surge in melancholgic films about youth and the enduring appeal of all that reminiscence, and we propose some projects ripe for melancholgic adaptation."

Updates, 10/13: Krista Smith talks with Jonze for Vanity Fair, Mr Beaks for AICN.

For MSN Movies, James Rocchi lists the "best and worst of children's literature on screen."

Online listening. Jonze is a guest on Fresh Air.

Updates, 10/14: Jonze "has broken one Hollywood doctrine," proposes Mary Pols in Time: "the notion that children's cinema is best devised for miniature couch potatoes who require a steady stream of laughs, action sequences and references to flatulence. Even the best American children's movies, like those made by Pixar, embed their heartfelt messages in what are fundamentally entertainments. The mysterious emotional turmoil and, let's face it, weirdness that every parent deals with on a daily basis can be found in the films of the great Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki but seem to have been deemed off-limits in America. The beauty of Where the Wild Things Are is that for all its fantastical elements, it's a work of realism, an exploration of mood and emotion. Like Sendak's book, which on initial publication was considered too edgy and creepy by some critics and libraries, the movie is dark, but it is perhaps even more richly cathartic."

"Despite its bouncy physicality and young protagonist, the melancholic Wild Things is not a movie for kids," argues Nick Schager. "It is, however, a mature, striking exploration of the way that kids feel – their need for comfort and safety, and their instinct to revolt when deserted – and how understanding those emotional dynamics can be (as expressed by a near-heartbreaking silent final glance between reunited mother and son) the first step toward an adult awareness of one's parents and self."

Rob Nelson for IFC: "If anything, Jonze, expanding upon a slender source, enhances the book's intimations of childhood anger and remorse. (Speaking as the father of a boy roughly Max's age, I haven't seen a film that's truer to preteen male tantrum logic in many moons, maybe ever.)"

"Jonze has struggled to bring the book - which was to have been his first feature - to the screen for even longer than the eight years it took Sendak to finish it," notes J Hoberman in the Voice. "The result isn't labored, so much as well-behaved. It's difficult not to watch the movie as a series of decisions carefully made and problems responsibly addressed by Jonze and screenwriter Dave Eggers.... Triumph or travesty, this movie is more likely something for Jonze's generational cohorts to love or loathe. (How many suburban garage bands had the name Wild Rumpus?) For me, it seemed like group therapy with the muppets."

"The lesson that Max eventually learns has to do with recognizing the equal solipsism of those around him, thus overcoming his own - in other words, to put aside the childish feelings that the movie, in its precious cocooning of fragile egos, initially indulges." The L's Mark Asch: "This is a good and valuable lesson, but one we should have learned long ago - perhaps at the age when we first read Where the Wild Things Are."

Joshua Rothkopf talks with Jonze for Time Out New York, where Keith Uhlich writes, "the true soulfulness of Sendak's parable never emerges." Also: "Our favorite (and least-favorite) children's adaptations."

Online listening tip. The film's Topic #1 this week on Slate's Culture Gabfest, where it does not fare well.

Online viewing tip. MoMA's got Jonze's 1996 interview with himself (as represented by a puppet).

 

Where the Wild Things Are

 

Updates, 10/15: With each passing day, it becomes clearer and clearer just how severely this film is dividing two diametrically opposed camps.

"Jonze and Eggers have added a lot without betraying a thing," writes LA Weekly's Scott Foundas, who talks with both. "Like Jonze's previous Adaptation and its freely associative relationship to Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief, Where the Wild Things Are is another small miracle of literary adaptation, which aims to capture the spirit rather than the letter of its source material."

"Jonze and Eggers' approach to the book is both original and well-intentioned," concedes Slate's Dana Stevens; "it's clear that they take both Sendak and childhood seriously (though not as seriously as they take themselves). It's just too bad the end result isn't a better movie."

For the New York Press's Armond White, this is "the most daring kid's-movie adaptation since Altman's still-avant-garde Popeye from 1980."

As for where the wild things actually are, "what an expansive, wondrous, confusing, scary, and gorgeous place to be, with lush woods abutting endless deserts and a raging ocean," writes Josh Modell at the AV Club. "If those cues aren't direct enough, the wild things themselves evoke various sides of Max's personality.... Though little happens, it doesn't much need to. Max gets to know the wild things in ways that simply ring true, and that's story enough."

"I can't speak for the kids," admits the Boston Phoenix's Peter Keough, "but I would rate Spike Jonze & Dave Eggers's adaptation of Maurice Sendak's 40-page children's picture book up there with Up and Wall•E as topping the recent renaissance in children's movies. If pressed, I'd rank it close to The Wizard of Oz. It touches as deeply and entertains as generously as those three classics, evoking them in style, themes, and structure."

Shaun Brady in the Philadelphia City Paper: "It's a dark interpretation, one fueled by the unfulfilled promise of imagination, where the impregnable fortress you see in your mind's eye is an easily crushable snow fort to the older boy down the road."

"Spike Jonze is the rare director who seems to realize that while adults think childhood is cute, the children themselves don't see it that way," writes Paul Matwychuk. "This is a lovely, sweet, unusually resonant kids' movie. I could eat it up."

"It might be a challenging film for children, but only because it refuses to talk down to them, emotionally or otherwise," writes Peter Hemminger in SEE Magazine.

Dominic Holden in the Stranger: "People Having a Hard Time in Life is the dullest of all movie plots, which includes but is not limited to Having a Hard Time with Friends, Having a Hard Time with a Job, Having a Hard Time with a Lover, Having a Hard Time with Oneself, and Having a Hard Time with Your Family. Covering characters in fur and talons doesn't substantially change this hackneyed cinematic staple."

Glenn Kenny's tweeted take: "Single moms, don't even THINK about trying to carve our a little corner of your life for yourself. Coddle that kid!"

The AV Club roundtable: Spike Jonze, Dave Eggers, Catherine Keener and Max Records.

Alex Billington talks with Jonze at FirstShowing.

Updates, 10/16:

 

 

Jonze "has made a work of art that stands up to its source and, in some instances, surpasses it," argues Manohla Dargis in the New York Times. "There are different ways to read the wild things, through a Freudian or colonialist prism, and probably as many ways to ruin this delicate story of a solitary child liberated by his imagination. Happily, Mr Jonze... has not attempted to enlarge or improve the story by interpreting it. Rather, he has expanded it, very gently."

"In elaborating on the original book so boldly, and repopulating it so richly, Jonze has protected Where the Wild Things Are as an inviolable literary work," argues Ann Hornaday in the Washington Post. "In preserving its darkest spirit, he's created a potent, fully realized variation on its most highly charged themes. Most important of all, he's achieved with the cinematic medium what Sendak did with words and pictures: He's grasped something true and terrifying about love at its most unconditional and voracious."

"The movie is so loaded with adult ideas about childhood - as opposed to things that might delight or engage an actual child - that it comes off as a calculated, petulant shout, the kind of trick kids play to guilt-trip their parents into paying attention to them." Stephanie Zacharek in Salon: "It appears to be a movie made by, and for, members of a generation who feel it's unfair to have to grow up. Jonze isn't channeling the feelings of 9-year-olds so much as he's obsessively fingering his own, like the silky edge of a blanket. 'Who cares about the children?' is Jonze's sulky rhetorical question. 'What about me?'"

"It's true, as a host of naysayers have been quick to proclaim, that younger kids may find the film frightening and emotionally confusing," writes the New Republic's Christopher Orr, "and older ones may become bored when the early pandemonium gives way to quieter, more conflicted moments. But this category confusion does nothing to diminish Jonze's achievement. Where the Wild Things Are may not be a great film for children (or, at least, most children). But it is something rarer still: a great, and unsparing, film about childhood."

"[T]his is not a shameful debacle like the wretched feature films of Dr Seuss books released in the last decade, for which I hope all involved will someday pay a grisly and immortal price," writes the Oregonian's Shawn Levy. "But it is a film that deflates you too often, despite its efforts to impart a sense of soaring. In the end, where the 'Wild Things' are is in your imagination and in Sendak's pages, not in this big-hearted but ultimately faint simulation."

Todd Gilchrist at Cinematical: "Bereft of nostalgia, much less a cinematic style that lends itself easily to conventional spectacle, Spike Jonze brings Where the Wild Things Are to life in a way that no one could have possibly expected, but thankfully in one better than they could have ever imagined."

"Where The Wild Things Are is a film for the child within and I love it," declares Sean Axmaker.

"Spike Jonze is certainly capable of unleashing dreams on screen," writes Michael Wilmington at Movie City News. "Being John Malkovich is one of the dreamiest of recent American movies. But this one needs more wild things, more rumpuses, and far more of the unbuttoned spirit of that Sendak inspiration, Winsor McCay and Little Nemo. Here, the rumpus is over too fast and the Wild Things don't make your heart sing."

"Is it possible that there wasn't enough Sendak story to justify a feature-length film?" asks Roger Ebert.

"Left to their own devices in filling in the book's blanks, the filmmakers have come up with a misdirected pastiche that will please neither children nor their parents, something so empty and misconceived it makes you glad you're an adult," finds the Los Angeles Times' Kenneth Turan.

At the Chicago Blog, Seth Lerer, author of Children's Literature: A Reader's History from Aesop to Harry Potter, offers his "his thoughts on Sendak, Jewish literary tradition, Kafka, immigration and much, much more."

A list from Salon's Andrew O'Hehir: "Kids' movies that aren't for kids: The top 10."

Online listening tip. AV Talk.

Online viewing tip. Michael Phillips and AO Scott are loving it.

Updates, 10/17: Via Carl Franzen at the Atlantic Wire, Alyssa Rosenberg on the recent trend toward creepier creeps in recent kids' flicks, Andrew Romano in Newsweek and Allison Flood in the Guardian arguing that trend's a good thing and Jack Schafer in Slate on Sendak's beef with Bruno Bettelheim.

Bob Cashill at Popdose: "It's all sort of therapeutic, in an Eggersy sort of way - and it misses the whimsical scariness that drew kids, the presumed target audience, to the material in the first place. Jonze's personality seems submerged. What would [Charlie] Kaufman have made of this?"

"While many of the individual filmmaking choices are intelligent, the finished product lacks that spark of magic that marks a classic," finds Alonso Duralde, who also considers other adaptations of kids' books at MSNBC.

In the Washington Post, Michael Dirda reviews Eggers's novelization, which, he argues, "has less to do with Sendak's original picture book than with the young adult novels of the 1970s and 80s. Just before the fantasy tsunami hit with JK Rowling, YA fiction was dominated by depressing accounts of children coming to terms with every sort of social and psychological trauma then available: a gay parent, drug addiction, teen pregnancy, racism, uncertain sexual orientation, worries about body image, prejudice of every sort. Although such books are obviously useful, they nonetheless readily slide into kiddie socialist realism, contrived stories of bravery and redemption, packed with uplifting morals for the troubled and confused. Give me Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys any day."

"Where The Wild Things Are may portray boyhood better than any recent Hollywood film, but it's a childhood that you only identify once you become an adult," writes Matt Dentler, who's also got a bit of online viewing: "An Interview with Spike Jonze" shot by Jonah Kaplan a few years ago.

Updates, 10/18: "[T]his was my daughter’s first cinema experience," writes M Leary at Filmwell. "I have been waiting for something intensely expressive, hieratic, and exploding with joy and light, and it looked like this was it.... She sat in my lap and we watched this together and I was disappointed that she understood almost everything about it immediately. I really wanted her to be puzzled, to marvel at images that she couldn’t quite wrap her head around in the same way I struggled through Harold and the Purple Crayon and Dandelion Wine a few years later. I wanted more long passages of wordless wild rumpus. If Jonze had trusted his images more, stayed faithful to the fantastical pace of Sendak’s vision, this would have been it."

Tweets Steven Shaviro: "Where the Wild Things Are and Synecdoche, New York are two of the saddest movies I have ever seen."

Michael J Anderson: "Whereas both of Jonze's previous films supplied a distinctive sensibility and mood, via principally their respective mise-en-scène's, while also maintaining a strongly classical shot/reverse-shot program, their thematic content and narrative structures have remained somewhat indistinguishable with those Kaufman, especially following the latter's collaborations with Michel Gondry and his own, archly reflexive, miserablist Synecdoche, New York (2008). However, with Where the Wild Things Are, Jonze develops the unique specificity of his own work, procuring another embedded fictional world that is nevertheless the inverse of his prior effort, Adaptation. (2002): rather than life following fiction, fiction very much models itself after life in Jonze's Maurice Sendak update."

The New York Times asks a panel of 'xperts: "What is the best type of 'first movie' for young children? Why are filmmakers disinclined to cater to this young audience?"

"[S]ome parents have been troubled by the ferocity of the story, and by the power of Jonze's new interpretation," report Vanessa Thorpe and Anushka Asthana in the Guardian. "As a result, they are advising other families to stay away."

Online listening tip. Guy Raz talks with writer Cliff Kuang about the movie's marketing, "clearly directed to adults of a certain savvy, sort of city-centric set." Also on NPR, Dave Eggers on All Things Considered.

 

Where the Wild Things Are

 

Updates, 10/19: "In its term-paper quality," writes Phil Nugent, "the movie resembles Hook, Steven Spielberg's grotesque take on the appeal of Peter Pan, but where that movie was simply clueless, an open admission from its director that seeing with the eyes of a child didn't come nearly as easy to him as it used to, Wild Things has traces of an unholy, overconfident smugness in its right to claim Sendak's timeless masterpiece as a generational touchstone, with special meaning for those who weren't yet born when it was first published but have since come of a certain creative age."

Online viewing. Once again, AO Scott and Michael Phillips, this time discussing their favorite kids movies.

Updates, 10/21: "The depressive fantasy that takes up most of the film feels like the creation of a resolutely disappointed adult," writes Benjamin Mercer in Reverse Shot, "not an energetic little boy, and the film's consistent kid's-eye-view aesthetic only calls further attention to this fundamental dissonance. That the shadowy and complex, but nonetheless coherent, emotional lives of the wild things spring from the imagination of this tantrum-prone child remains unconvincing throughout."

Glenn Kenny gives the film a second shot and discovers that "I actually disliked the picture in larger measure this time than the first."

In Érudit, Riitta Oittinen explores the issues raised while "Translating Picture Books," taking Where the Wild Things Are as a case study and looking particularly at how the book's been translated into German, Swedish and Finnish.

At SF360, Michael Read has comments from Jonze and Eggers made at a recent Bay Area roundtable. More from Steve "Frosty" Weintraub at Collider.

Updates, 10/23: "The problem is not that it's so 'dark' or 'adult,' just that it's emotionally monochromatic, leaving out almost everything else," finds Jim Emerson.

At GreenCine Daily, Vadim Rizov explains why he prefers The 5000 Fingers of Dr T.

Browsing. The Rosenbach Museum and Library's Maurice Sendak Gallery. Related: Lauren F Friedman's Philadelphia City Paper cover story.

Online viewing. Sendak talks about his childhood and love of movies.

Update, 10/28: Nifty collaboration you might want to take a look at; magCulture lines it up for you: "Little White Lies always focuses on one movie, and this issue it is Where the Wild Things Are, while board sports title Huck carries an interview with director Jonze. A clever use of resources by publisher The Church of London."

 

Mr. Hudson, I must say you’ve provided a very thorough, insightful, and encyclopedic examination of this film that I think would be difficult to find elsewhere, with scrutiny and praise side by side on the proverbial living room, home theater coffee table of discussions. I agree with much of your assessment, in particular your examination of the child of cinema, the childish and childlike in particular and how varying perspectives can often result in the same reaction to a film – especially one based on a such a widely popular and broadly successful children’s picture book of nearly a half decade ago. Of particular interest to me was your exploration of intention and well meaning by the filmmakers who expressed from the earliest of concept meetings that the intended to make a film that was not necessarily ‘for’ children as much as it was a film that explored the often confused, challenged, and troubled perspective of a ‘child’ who struggles to make sense of a changing world – a world changing externally as well as internally. The links you’ve provided will no less keep me busy for quite some time (thanks for that) but in the interim I’d very much like to offer a link to my own review of the film for your thoughts and considerations. I author the blog Above the Line: Practical Movie Reviews and you can find the review in question at: http://rorydean.wordpress.com/2010/10/25/where-the-wild-things-are-2009-not/ cheers→

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