"He's small for a king."
Who could have imagined that an adaptation of Maurice Sendak's 'Where the Wild Things Are' would be one of the most controversial and divisive films of 2009? The book has been beloved by children and parents for close to fifty years. The movie also had a great deal of talent behind the cameras. Director Spike Jonze previously helmed the cult favorites 'Being John Malkovich' and 'Adaptation'. Dave Eggers (popular author of 'A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius') wrote the screenplay. Makeup and monster effects were created by Jim Henson's Creature Shop. Voice acting is performed by a great cast including James Gandolfini, Forest Whitaker, Catherine O'Hara, Chris Cooper, Lauren Ambrose, and Paul Dano. And the movie's trailers, played to the song "Wake Up" by Arcade Fire, were amazingly evocative, exciting, and emotional. This film had all the signs of being a huge hit and possibly an enduring classic.
Then the reviews started coming in, and they were divided between rapturous, fawning praise or total dismissal. Audiences felt much the same. After a solid opening weekend, the picture's box office tally slid rapidly downwards. All told, it fell short of recouping its $100 million budget. This was truly the love-it-or-hate-it movie of the year, with little in between.
What caused such a reaction? Surely, this project should have been bulletproof. For better or worse, the film isn't quite what most people expected it to be. As Jonze is the first to point out, he hasn't made a children's movie; he's made a movie about childhood. Those are two very different things.
The basic fundamentals of Sendak's story are of course retained. 9-year-old Max (played by a young actor with the improbably perfect name of Max Records), wearing his favorite wolf costume, has been punished by his mother for misbehaving. He imagines himself escaping to a wondrous fantasy land populated by almost-but-not-quite-scary monsters who, in short order, name him their king and invite him to join their wild rumpus. Max is overjoyed at first to run free and unleash all his destructive energies. Eventually, however, he realizes that getting his way isn't as much fun as he expected, and starts to miss his home.
The book is a scant 48 illustrated pages long. The movie runs 101 minutes. Prior film adaptations of children's classics such as 'The Polar Express' and 'The Grinch Who Stole Christmas' addressed similar problems by padding the time with blatant and unnecessary filler material. ('Polar Express' must have a dozen pointless action scenes in which the train careens wildly up and down steep inclines like a rollercoaster.) Jonze and Eggers have taken a different approach here. Not only have they expanded the story, they've also greatly reinterpreted it (with Sendak's blessing).
No longer is Max's adventure a simple parable for the importance of impulse control. Nor are the lines between fantasy and reality so clearly defined. Max isn't just sent to his room without dinner for being bad. He runs away from home, largely out of frustration at the way he feels his mother and older sister haven't paid enough attention to him and have treated him unfairly. (What child hasn't threatened to do the same?) The boat he discovers and the journey he takes are presented in utterly matter-of-fact terms. This isn't a daydream for Max. Everything he experiences is real to him. Eggers' script is told entirely from Max's perspective. The story follows a child's logic. Events rarely make rational sense, except as a child would interpret them. The plotting is intentionally messy, and many issues are left only half-resolved. Just as the world can be, Max's island is filled with equal parts terror and wonder, frequently side-by-side.
The film sees the Wild Things (who have been given names and personalities) as expressions of Max's emotions and his confusion about the adult world. They bicker constantly and have petty, childish arguments. While capable of showing great love and affection, they can turn jealous and hurtful on a dime. They behave both as Max himself does, as children, and as he believes that adults behave. The movie isn't the fun romp that many expected. It's the story of a child learning to cope with loneliness, sadness, and emotions he doesn't understand. The tone is often incredibly melancholy. This is an elegy for childhood, made by and for adults looking back on it.
Jonze directs with a visionary eye, and produces some truly breathtaking imagery. The Wild Things themselves, depicted as a cross between 'Sesame Street' muppets and fairy tale monsters, are incredibly agile and expressive. Although some of the celebrity voices are recognizable (primarily Gandolfini's), they easily establish real, emotionally engaging characters beneath the fur and animatronics. Max Records (who looks so much like a Culkin, it's amazing that he isn't one) also makes a terrific lead. He delivers a remarkably natural, unaffected performance.
'Where the Wild Things Are' didn't quite connect with audiences during its theatrical run. Nonetheless, it's a beautiful, haunting film that I can foresee people rediscovering on home video, and revisiting for decades to come. The movie may not appeal to every viewer, but has the power to inspire and enthrall those who find its wavelength.
'Where the Wild Things Are' has been released on Blu-ray by Warner Home Video. Early copies of the Blu-ray will include a second disc with a standard DVD version of the movie and a Digital Copy. Later pressings may not include the second disc. The cardboard slipcover over the case will indicate which version you're buying.
The cover artwork on the Blu-ray is quite classy.
The disc starts with three annoying trailers. Unlike most Warner releases, this Blu-ray does have a main menu screen.
Despite (or because of) the movie's fantastical content, Spike Jonze chose to photograph 'Where the Wild Things Are' in a very raw, naturalistic style. He shot on film, almost exclusively with handheld cameras. He embraced things like film grain, lens flares and hazy, blown-out contrasts. The Blu-ray's 2.40:1 picture is really quite beautiful and film-like. Although it may not demonstrate the sort of crystalline clarity or razor sharpness of an all-digital production, the image has plenty of subtle detail. Colors are understated but appear accurate.
The grain is always light and unobtrusive. It's just present enough to give the image some texture, but never overwhelms it. For the most part, the 1080p/VC-1 transfer resolves it properly without excessive noisiness. However, in a few select instances (the first I spotted was at time code 18:48), a small amount of blockiness or posterization creep into the encode. Fortunately, these are rare and usually isolated to dark parts of the picture where they aren't too noticeable.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack has terrific warmth and fidelity, especially in the score by Carter Burwell and songs by Karen O. Dialogue is always discernable in even the most hectic or frenzied scenes. The surround channels are put to good use to create an effective sense of envelopment, though they rarely call attention to themselves with gimmicky ping-pong effects.
The track has plenty of dynamic range when it needs to. However, this isn't a rock 'em sock 'em action movie. Bass is used smartly to add depth to the soundstage. But there are no obnoxious megaton explosions here. The track is exceptionally well balanced so that neither music nor sound effects ever overwhelm the dialogue.
As seems to be a common habit, Warner has skimped on the bonus features for this new release. These days, the studio usually only lavishes its classic catalog titles with supplements.
In this case, the Blu-ray edition of 'Where the Wild Things Are' at least fares a little better than the comparable DVD, which has next to nothing. Both primarily focus on a series of brief behind-the-scenes featurettes by video director (and friend of Spike Jonze) Lance Bangs. Here's what the two discs have in common:
For a film with a $100 million budget, 'Where the Wild Things Are' was a pretty big box office disappointment during its theatrical release. This is the sort of movie, however, that begs for rediscovery on home video. It's a beautiful and very emotionally gripping tone poem about the innocence of childhood.
The Blu-ray looks and sounds fantastic. Its only disappointment is the weak selection of bonus features. Had the film been a box office hit, I'm sure that Warner would have treated it better in this regard, or scheduled a double-dip down the line. As it is, this is probably all we're going to get. It's enough, fortunately. This disc is certainly worth owning.