Overview: Spike Jonze’s unexpected take on Maurice Sendak’s classic childhood book. Warner Brothers; 2009; PG-13; 101 Minutes.
Some Cinematic Highlights (A Formality): Jim Henson’s Creature Shop preserves and enhances the traditional look of the Wild Things. Jonze collaborated with screenwriter Dave Eggers on a script that assigns the Wild Things empathetic personalities (where before there was just howling and gnashing teeth). Max Records was born (and named) for the role. An impressive list of vocal talents, including James Gandolfini, Chris Cooper, and Catherine O’Hara add even more dimension to our monsters. The soundtrack is as organic a marriage of music and story as one could hope – Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs performs free-spiritedly with a chorus of children in what sounds like open, echoing spaces and Arcade Fire offer up a spirited build to a wordless choir crescendo.
The Daring (The Real Highlight): This was an audacious and brave undertaking. The source material sits on the most sacred shelves of many a heart-space. With a cross-generational army of traditional fans waiting skeptically, Jonze and Eggers pit themselves against a stubborn and stacked deck. But in a cunning move of storytelling, they have utilized the flutter-hearted sense of nostalgic recognition to seduce viewers into a journey that is wholly new, but warmly familiar. The relationship between Max and his assumed imaginary friends is not a story structure. It doesn’t make for great filmmaking in the classic sense. But this movie is something other than that, something equally valuable: A community scrapbook shared by all who are open to its charms, steeped in common feeling—the melancholy, the hurt, the confusion, the unfounded and senseless joy, the first disorienting spark of romantic connection, the wonderment of friendship and the anguish of losing friends. This movie makes us concede: In spite our best efforts, we will always be children. That’s okay.
And This from Ten Sentences: Kurt Vonnegut once said: “The function of the artist is to make people like life better than they have before.” If Mr. Vonnegut’s assertion also works as a standard measurement for directors, then Spike Jonze may be the best filmmaker working today.
Grade: A –