WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE - DVD review

For me, it was a hard, uphill climb just to say I'd reached the top.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.
Puccio
TimRaynor's picture
Tim
Raynor

Note: In the following joint DVD review both John and Tim provide their opinions of the film, with John also writing up the Video, Audio, Extras, and Parting Shots.

The Film According to John:
My only acquaintanceship with Maurice Sendaks' popular, 1963 children's classic "Where the Wild Things Are" include having read it many, many years ago and not thinking much of it and more recently seeing director Spike Jonze and co-screenwriter Dave Eggers's 2009 film adaptation, and not thinking much of it.

As I watched the film, I couldn't help wondering for whom Jonze made it. The story and characters are very dark and scary, too scary, in fact, for younger children under ten or so. And certainly teens would avoid it, as they generally eschew anything smacking of childhood; and probably most girls would skip it, too (since there is a young boy at the center of the adventure and very few females). I suppose that leaves the film for older boys, say between ten and twelve, and for nostalgic adults who remember the book from their own youth. Possibly because of this conflict over audience, the film did only moderately well at the box office and didn't recoup its $100,000,000 production costs. Now that it's on DVD and Blu-ray, we'll see how many parents pick it up for their kids and themselves. Frankly, if I were a parent, I'd be a little hesitant about letting my children see it unless they had read and understood the book and unless I had discussed the movie version with them well ahead of time.

Jonze ("Being John Malkovich," "Adaptation"), who also co-wrote the story, seemed hell-bent on making Sendak's story more melodramatic and portentous than necessary. You probably already know what the story's about, either having read it yourself or heard about it, but as a reminder it involves a sad, frustrated young boy, Max (Max Records), who lives with his mother and sister. He feels alone, friendless, and rejected, and as a result he strikes out at those around him and tends to destroy things. He's not just a mischievous, impulsive child but in Jonze's hands a seriously disturbed one. I can see Jonze's desire to make the boy's problems bigger than life in order to get a point across to younger viewers, but in making him somewhat abnormal, I'm not sure too many youngsters can easily identify with him.

Anyway, after a fight with his mom, Max finds an escape from his anger and discouragement in a fantasy island world of his own making in which his pent-up emotions and the emotions of people around him are personified in different imaginary beings, with Max becoming their king. The island's creatures take the shape of huge, furry Muppet-like critters vaguely resembling the stuffed animals in Max's room as well as Max's own wolf outfit, each creature voiced by a different famous actor or actress. Most prominent among the creatures is Carol, voiced by James Gandolfini. Now, understand, Gandolfini is wonderful in the role, the best thing in the movie, actually, but how comforting is it to a young viewer when a major character in the hero's life is a ten-foot, man-eating monster with the voice of Tony Soprano?

Among the other creature voices you may recognize are Chris Cooper as Douglas, Michael Berry, Jr. as the Bull, Paul Dano as Alexander, Lauren Ambrose as KW, Catherine O'Hara as Judith, and Forest Whitaker as Ira. Catherine Keener plays Max's mother, Mark Ruffalo the mother's boyfriend, and Pepita Emmerich as Max's sister.

The thing is, the filmmakers do none of the story lightly or humorously (although I smiled maybe twice). They do most of it in dead earnest. Which makes the movie all the more somber and threatening, for children and adults. The film implies that the creatures in Max's world killed and ate their previous "kings," and at first they're more than willing to eat Max. Moreover, like Max, they love to destroy things and pile on and use violence to vent their anger, in between long bouts of existential conversation. It's a pretty rough and wild place for any viewer.

It's clear Jonze made "Where the Wild Things Are" primarily as a psychological case study, a mature drama meant for adults, not children (despite his having a horde of kids on the set to keep things, ummm, childlike). The creatures, for instance, played by very tall actors in costumes and computer-generated faces, look downright terrifying (even though they resemble, as I've said, big, overstuffed Muppets), and their behavior is grotesque. Worse, if Jonze did make the film for adults, he didn't open it up nearly enough. The characters, their actions, and their dialogue are often repetitious and oversimplified, producing a film only 101 minutes long that feels like 801. What's more, the story never convinced me that Max actually learned much from his personal experiences among the Wild Things, so I was never sure what the point was.

If the movie followed the book, it should have been happy, sad, exciting, insightful, maybe a little bit frightening, and ultimately rewarding for any viewer, young or old. Instead, this adult found the film slow, tedious, melancholy, overly sentimental, and not a little boring. It seemed as though Jonze had decided to remake Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" for children, to probe the human psyche, in this case the human condition of growing up and its loss of innocence and all. The result is about as ponderous as Conrad, too. To each his own, I suppose, and you'll find Tim's reaction below much more positive than mine.

John's film rating: 5/10

The Film According to Tim:
I'll admit when walking into "Where the Wild Things Are" I had already heard all the buzz of how many considered Maurice Sendak's children's book to be one of the most adored of its time. Granted, I remember having the book as a child, but over forty years later, I can't say I remember much about it. I'm not quite sure if my mother read it to me or if I read it on my own, let alone the length of the book or how many pictures it had. Apparently, there was also an animated version directed by Gene Dietch back in 1973, but I don't recall much about that, either. No, for me, childhood was more about building tree forts, riding bikes, and playing with Hot-Wheels. To be honest, the childhood friends I do still keep in contact with certainly never talk about what books were great in those times. We were kids, and we could have cared less about reading. Television and Saturday morning cartoons were more important in those days.

Nevertheless, I'll admit I had "Where the Wild Things Are," and I do remember the artwork, which, by the way, in the Spike Jonze 2009 adaptation of it is done quite well, but I can't say I was ever partial to it. I was more of a Dr. Seuss kid, but, even with his material, I barely remember how "Green Eggs and Ham" turned out. I seem to remember one of Dr. Seuss's books where a bunch of dogs end up partying in a big tree and yet another where a bird is trying to find its mother. I guess what I'm getting at is I'm walking into this movie expecting to know so much about it because all the previews tell me I should, or in some assuming way it is likely that I do. Well, Warner Brothers, sorry, but I don't remember a thing about the story, yet they assume after forty-years there's no possible way I could ever forget the book.

Therefore, here I am, walking into a film a little reluctant to see and a bit perplexed that if the book was so great, then why didn't they make this film twenty-years ago? And don't give me that "they didn't have the technology" thing; I'm not buying it. You might say I was a little disgruntled to see it and I can't say the previews excited me too much, but there you have it. However, and after the two hours of sitting through it, I'd have to say it's worth every penny. No, it's not the greatest children's film of all time, but it packs enough heart to make you feel like a kid again. Was I surprised? Absolutely.

Directed by Spike Jonze, with production kickbacks from Tom Hanks, 2009's "Where the Wild Things Are" ends up holding its own as a film. It tells the story of a young boy named Max (Max Records, who is from my home town of Portland, Oregon.) who in the course of an evening gets into a fight with his mother (Catherine Keener), flees the home, and hides in the neighborhood woods. From there we are transported into Max's imagination as we take a boat ride to Monster Island. There Max meets with several fury, monster-like characters that come close to eating him, but instead accept him as King of the island.

Through Max's imaginary adventure he bonds with all his newfound friends and develops an even closer bond to Carol (James Gandolfini). Together, they play through one pointless adventure to the next, but uniquely tackle those questions of truth and acceptance all children have at a young age. In other words, the entire story feels a bit spontaneous, but it is a great representation of what possibly goes through the mind of a child. And where it takes us is straight to the heart, leaving us with a warm smile upon our face. Thus, this is probably the way a kid's movie should feel, especially in an era where children's films have become too mechanical and spoon-fed. It's actually nice to see a film from a kid's perspective that punches its messages with kid gloves, yet succeeds in driving the point home.

The Good:
The films has a wonderful cast of characters voiced by Paul Dano as Alexander, Chaterine O'Hara as Judith, Chris Cooper as Douglas, and Forest Whitaker as Ira. The costumes are spectacular and at no time do you suspect a man in a monster suit. The art work alone pays great homage to Maurice Sendak's famous book.

I think my favorite thing about the film is that it genuinely surprised me. I really wasn't expecting much, and at times it is kind of a dry run of nonsense, but it wins overall for a climax that tugs at the heartstrings. I know a lot of folks say they enjoy films like "Harry Potter" because it makes them feel like a kid again. "Where the Wild Things Are" actually achieves that in flying colors. In its completion, all I could think of was Bill Murray from "Stripes" and the line where he asks, "Ok, who here cried when Old Yeller died in the end?" Not that anyone dies, but you get the point.

The Bad:
I'd say the only thing the film had problems with is its length. I think a little fat could have been cut, and it still would have been effective. Because of its two-hour length, the film does have its moments that feel a bit dull and tedious. Nevertheless, as soon as we feel a slowdown, the film picks right back up with more nonessential wonderment and imagination. Overall, it feels like a subtle roller-coaster ride through a child's mind with all the lapses of logic and reason you would expect. In fact, much of his imaginary monsters' backstory is so vague that it's left to the audience to fill in the imaginary loopholes themselves. And being this film is spun-out from a child's imagination, having plot holes in the characters backgrounds can and will be expected. Maybe this is not a good thing in most movies, but in the case of this film, it works well and feels natural.

The Ugly:
I'm sure the film will spark up some merchandising for a 2009 Christmas run. Some radical religious folks may view the monsters as hideous, evil, and claim Maurice Sendak's book only promoted Satan worship. Nevertheless, the rest of us folks with our sanity still intact will find the--most likely stuffed--monsters cute, cuddly, and fun gifts for our kids under the Christmas tree. Besides, I can only imagine the sales of Sendak's book have probably gone through the roof as of late.

Closing:
If you're anyone like me and don't remember much about the famous children's book, don't worry about it. The film stands on its own merits and is a wonderful two-hours of what it truly feels like to be a kid again. Granted, I don't feel it's the greatest kids' movie I've ever seen, but it is a big winner for having such a big heart. I would certainly recommend this one for the entire family.

Tim's film rating: 7/10

Video:
Warner video engineers use an anamorphic transfer to bring the film to disc in all its 2.40:1 ratio splendor, and it does look good. The image is reasonably sharp for standard defintion, with rich, vivid colors. The screen remains clean throughout, too, except for a thin veneer of fine film grain providing appropriate texture and depth to the picture. Facial tones are realistically rendered as well. About the only shortcoming is that nighttime scenes do not have the kind of deep black levels I expected, but that may be a condition of the original print.

Audio:
WB use Dolby Digital 5.1 to reproduce the soundtrack. It creates a pleasantly ambient musical bloom in the surround speakers, as well as miscellaneous other noises like those of a dirt-clod fight that spread out nicely in all the channels. This is well-detailed sound, with crisp transient response, strong deep bass, and wide, strong dynamics and impact. Compared to the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio track on the Blu-ray disc, the Dolby Digital is more forward and bright, but it's hardly objectionable.

Extras:
The primary bonus items on the disc are several "Where the Wild Things Are" shorts by Lance Bangs. They include "The Absurd Difficulty of Filming a Dog Running and Barking at the Same Time," self-explanatory, five minutes; "The Big Prank," three minutes on just that; "The Vampire Attack," one minute of filming; and "The Kids Take Over the Picture," about five minutes with the cast and crew's children on the set.

In addition, we get eighteen scene selections; a series of promos and trailers at start-up only; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; French and Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.

Parting Shots:
Some people, like Tim, will find a good deal of heart in "Where the Wild Things Are." Others, like myself, may find its several hours of gloom and doom too depressing to be worth the payoff. How fans of the book will react I have no idea. For me, it was a hard, uphill climb just to say I'd reached the top.

Ratings

Video
8
Audio
8
Extras
4
Film Value
6