This is art.
While conducting interviews for his newest picture, Spike Jonze was pleased when I called his work a children's art film, stating that art films are considered a "dirty word" to studios. He thanked me. He didn't need to. We should thank him. Jonze's masterstroke, Where the Wild Things Are ,isn't just a children's art film, it's an art film in itself. It's a lovely, emotional work of masterful mayhem that taps right into the spirit of growing up. How conflicted we feel. How happy, how sad, how crazy, how rambunctious and of course, how wild we are. And that can be frightening. Jonze didn't shy from any of this.
Ever gracious (and knowing the certain pressure he received from studios to create a more mainstream kiddie film), Jonze extended pleasure when I cited other kid's "art" films, including Bambi -- which is so spare and primal and beautiful, there's no way in hell it would be made today. But spare and beautiful and primal all describe Jonze's gorgeously profound, Wild Things -- adapted from Maurice Sendak's beloved children's book, published in 1963 -- a picture book read by generations of kids and grown up kids.
Talking to the art team, Sonny Gerasimowicz, Lance Accord, and KK Barrett, I also remarked how it evokes more adult art fare from Michelangelo Antonioni's Zabriskie Point, to NicolasRoeg's Walkabout, which, as shot in the Australian desert -- it truly does. Watching a wild thing run down a sand dune in emotional distress was surprisingly moving. The earnestness, the playfulness, and the beauty touched me on an aesthetic level (how could it not?), but also moved me in deeper ways -- ways much more mysterious, and ways that made me think about the image. Why do I feel so much?
Taking Sendak's classic, Jonze, working from a screenplay co-written with Dave Eggers, changes things a bit, but never loses Sendack's anarchic spirit. Max Records plays (aptly named) Max, a kid who loves his mother (Catherine Keener), but who runs around the house with abandon -- resulting in some power struggles with a mom who, though she appreciates her son's creativity, becomes exasperated with his rebellion. I loved how the film moved with Max -- and we experience quiet moments, like the simple tug of his mother's nylons to his extreme rough-housing. After all, kids are filled with a multitude of instincts and feelings, but unlike adults, they often display them more freely.
Max angers his mother, and upset, flees to Sendak's world in his king beast costume complete with whiskers, ear hoodie and eventual crown, setting off by boat to soon meet those "Wild Things." These are a mixed group of varied personalities (in wonderful costumes) including vulnerable Carol (James Gandolfini), the patient KW (Lauren Ambrose), funny, stubborn Judith (Catherine O'Hara), complicated Ira (Forest Whitaker), goatish Alexander (Paul Dano), and bird-like Douglas (Chris Cooper). Within those lovely sand dunes, and lush jungle, we watch unleashed, sometimes scary thoughts, instincts, actions, making the movie feel more like a tone poem over a simple and-now-to-that-big-scene experience.
No typical high fives, no dumb games (aside from throwing dirt clods, a wonderful moment), no silly eyes-agog "all right!" movie kiddie moment (and thank god Jonze had the sense to never play "Wild Thing" by The Troggs, something a studio probably suggested. Instead we get the great Karen O.), Jonze made an authentic kid's movie. It's a hero's journey that's oddly real, truly childlike and yet uniquely adult while remaining fantastical all at once. Not an easy feat, but one Spike Jonze conquers brilliantly. This movie is personal, and though I sense many critics will be disappointed by the places it doesn't go, I loved the movie for its elusive, human and animalistic beauty -- a beauty that will occasionally make you gasp and, in certain moments, cry. And not because you feel sappy, but because, quite perfectly, you feel wild.