Saturday, October 17, 2009

At the Movies: Where the Wild Things Are

Overall Rating: 9.0

Consider this the start of a new type of feature here at Right Fans. We're going to be reviewing sci-fi and fantasy films as we see fit (and as we see the movies, of course), and I thought I would open with an instant classic. Just had the chance to take in this new release based on a very short childhood fantasy adventure - a favorite of mine as a youngster - and I came away suitably impressed. Between the remarkably subtle and quirky acting and screenplay and the stunning production values, they succeeded in taking a simple (and always-applicable) message about family and turning it into an entertaining, emotionally powerful piece.

Cut for spoilers.

Plot Synopsis:

For those of you who have never read the original (16 page!) child classic, I'd first like to ask - where were your parents and teachers and why didn't they make you read it? :) The plot itself is very simple. A young child named Max with entirely too much energy to contain struggles with his fear and hyper-sensitivity, culminating in a fight with his frazzled mother that sends him running from his home into the forest. His active imagination then carries him on a whirlwind adventure in which he meets a clan of strange (and humongous) monster-like creatures on a small island in the sea and appoints himself their king (to avoid being eaten). He makes wild claims about his powers and tries to lead the wild things - helping them design the ultimate fort and dealing with squabbles between the creatures. Ultimately, he comes to realize that he's not a king...just a scared little boy...and after many imagined days in the company of the wild things, he realizes that he misses his mother and makes a return trip home - having realized that while family life is sometimes difficult, it's still the most important thing in his life. The entire imagined sojourn takes just a few hours in the real world.

Acting: 10.0

Max Records (Max) brings the kind of subtlety, emotional clarity and a sort of genuine quality that is often lacking in child stars. On top of that, the voice acting is surprisingly effective - I'm not sure most people realize how difficult it is to give giant Jim Henson puppets full character and expression without the benefit of all of the non-verbal aspects of communication that normally show us emotion, but it's not a simple task. In particular, James Gandolfini was fantastic as Carol - the monster who Max comes to identify with early on (likely, the monster who represents Max himself in his own mind), but I don't think there's a bad moment in the entire production. I was expecting to be entertained...I was not expecting to be blown away.

The moments that best personify the skill in the acting and voice acting performances were those quiet moments following a temper tantrum either by Max or Carol. It is a rare child indeed who can go from raging without direction to showing how deeply he cares about the person at whom he was just raging without playing it over the top or missing the key emotional responses. Trust me when I say you won't be sorry you took the time to see this work.

Production Values: 8.0

In our television reviews we respond to the fact that most shows lack the budget to do something remarkable with their presentation by excluding this category and merely making mention of things that impress us when we talk about the writing. With the movies, though, we can be a little more focused on direction, presentation, and innovative techniques...the art of film. I have to give a positive shout out (and this come as no surprise) to Jim Henson's Creature Workshop. When you read the original short story, you get a certain image in your head about what these wild things look like and...let's just say they NAILED it. That's hard to do...getting these creatures looking and moving just like I imagined as an 8 year old. But that's Jim Henson's production group for you...they stand as the last great live-action puppet and creature makers in the business at the frontier of the CGI era. It's a shame, because I think we're about to lose something wonderful as we go more and more toward all-digital movie-making. In any event, the clever blend of CGI and puppeteering here was impressive.

The musical score was appropriate to the characters and the action involved...but, after considering the alternative ways in which this film could have been backed by sound, I am left thinking there was perhaps a better way. Some of the off-tone and off-rhythm stuff is grating to the ear - perhaps intentionally, but that's an artistic choice that I don't think helped the story. I'd also like to point out that although part of this film's charm is the quirkiness and human quality of the people and creatures involved, I think sometimes the direction (by Spike Jonze) was a bit TOO quirky. I lost the moment a few times with some of the strange choices. I am not an arthouse critic and do not know enough to appoint myself any kind of expert in cinematography and review is a layperson's reaction. So take it for a grain of salt.

Writing: 9.5

How do you turn a 16 page short story into a 90-minute movie that appeals to everyone, not just little kids? Give Max and his mother significant back story - show us what his home life is like before he runs away - and then give the wild things themselves a series of unique characters, including interpersonal relationships not covered in the original story. The screen-writers here did an incredible job of adding depth to a simple story without robbing it of its primary message or its basic style, mood, or theme. I feel like they've rewritten a simple short story into what that story SHOULD have been...keeping all of the same essential quality while adding nuance and depth that can appeal to all generations. This screenplay will have lasting appeal and stand the test of time because the short story suffuses all of ITS endurance and the screenwriters (headed b Spike Jonze) added the kind of details that adults can relate to, remembering fondly their own childhood or recalling their own experiences raising children.

Message: 8.5

I am an absolute sucker for family-motivated themes. A Walk to Remember, for example, reached me on many levels, but what caused me to ball my eyes out like a woman (LOL) was not the love story or the cancer or the untimely was the reunification of Landon with his father. As such, I have to be careful not to go nuts overrating the message of a show that happens to focus on family. But I will say that this story is very sweet and very positive - full of open-minded childhood wonderment, imagination, family values and just about everything you could ask for from a film of this type.

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