Written by: Dave Eggers & Spike Jonze, based on the book by Maurice Sendak
Directed by: Spike Jonze
Starring: Max Records, Catherine Keener, Paul Gandolfini, Lauren Ambrose, Forest Whitaker
My Advice: Don’t miss it.
Max (Records) is a young, imaginative energetic boy. He has a sister (Pepita Emmerichs) and a mother (Keener). His father is not present. His energy is sometimes constructive, like building a fort-igloo to store snowballs in (although the snowballs were going to be used to wage war, naturally). Or building a fort-rocketship to explore the heavens. But sometimes he puts on a wolf costume and basically goes apeshit. Or wolfshit. After one of his more violent tantrums, he runs away. Far away. To an island populated by Wild Things. And there, he is declared king. And as king, he will make everything better. And protect his subjects from loneliness. Honest.
It was to be expected that a beloved children’s book being made into a film–a live-action film at that–was to be suspect. Mostly because the book itself clocks in at a whopping forty-eight pages. And how do you make a feature film out of that, animated or otherwise? I only felt a glimmer of hope when I heard Spike Jonze had taken on the project, since I figured only he and Michel Gondry were the sort of director who could pull this off.
[ad#longpost]And my faith was well-founded. The movie is…something else. It’s, as you might have guessed, not the book. It does use the book to jump off to its own entity. And as a result creates something that’s complicated, deep, moving and profound. It’s an achingly accurate portrait of being a boy. The weird synthesis of wanting to be a sweet, to be a brother, to be a son, to be good…and yet sometimes, sometimes, you just want to break shit. It’s a destructive urge that’s hard to explain but is captured perfectly in the film. Not just in the film, but in the presence of Max…Records positively nails everything he’s handed: from impotent adolescent rage to fear to love to longing.
In discussions after seeing the film, I came to the conclusion that it’s actually the male response to The Wizard of Oz. In Oz Dorothy goes to a magical land and meets fantastical creatures who she befriends, then they go on a jolly but moderately scary adventure that ends up with her home safe and sound. In Wild Things, however, Max goes to an island filled with untameable beasts where they like nothing better than to light things on fire and blow shit up. It’s literally a boy’s dream come true.
Except it’s not just a dream because on the island there’s bitterness. And loneliness. And threats. And everything that one faces as part of growing up, personified (wildthingified?) in the many beasts. And the beasts are fantastic. From what I understand you’ve got performers in real Henson Creature Workshop suits with CG used for the faces–which makes sense, because the faces are heartbreakingly emotive. The voices work well also–with James Gandolfini as lead Carol, and the other standouts Paul Dano as Alexander (the goat) and Lauren Ambrose as kindly KW.
The one drawback to the film is that because it seems to work so well as a portrait of male adolescence and change, I wonder how women take to it. Having seen it with two women, neither of whom felt as moved by it as I did, I’m curious to see how other women felt about it. (That’s what the comments are for.)
I think there’s something about 2009 that makes it the year of the depressingly good family film. Up will stay with me for a long time and so will this film. I think it’s brave and smart and expects its audience to be the same: it refuses to spoonfeed what it’s doing to anyone. And the more I think about and dissect what I’ve seen in the film, the deeper I dig into it, the more I like it. Highly recommended.