Saturday, 12 December 2009

Let The Wild Rumpus Start.

This is easily my most anticipated film of this year. Easily. I've been waiting for this film, literally, for years. I think the last time I was so desperate to see a film was Brokeback Mountain, which I'd similarly been following for years. Yesterday, I dragged myself to see Where The Wild Things Are, trying to damp down my expectations, because they were so sky-high that anything other than a cinematic masterwork may have left me shivering in a corner, crying that it was so cold, begging for my mother to hold me as I tried to keep my hands away from that oh-so-sharp razorblade begging me to use it.

That being said, I now don't know where to start with a review of the film. After viewing it, I deliberately held back from immediately posting on it because I knew that I had to let the film settle, after suffering from such anticipation (and I don't use the word 'suffering' lightly - I view the last year as an ordeal, waiting for the film.)

For those who don't know the book (which seems to be the entire UK - how? Every single Australian I know, pretty much, grew up with the book. How did the UK not? We're not so different that NO ONE in this country knows it), it's a children's book consisting of something like nine sentences, seventeen lines. And it's a 100 minute film. An impressive adaption, to say the least. And it does hold up to the book. It is quite obviously an adaptation. To bring Brokeback back into the conversation, that was another film adapted from a much smaller book. Brokeback was almost word for word in its adaptation (it was also a novella, rather than a really, really, really short story), but WTWTA follows the same lines, taking the mood and tone and idea and turning that into the film.

Max (Max Records) is a kid whose parents have split (the mother is played by Catherine Keener - we never see the father.) He has an older sister in her late-ish teens, and his mother has started seeing someone else (very briefly, Mark Ruffalo.) Max is struggling with the separation, and with the introduction of this new male figure, particularly with the lack of attention being showered on him at a time when he needs it the most. As such, he runs away to this invented world of the Wild Things, giant, furry, man-eating monsters. He is raised as their king, and proceeds to try and make everything good and real - good and real as a child would see it.

It's a pretty scary film, for kids. I would argue it is more of an adult film than a kids film, especially with its themes of abandonment and perceived neglect. Max's idea of ruling is precisely that of a child - he doesn't realise the politics of leading, nor the complex emotions of adults. In leading the wild things, he is leading a bunch of fully-formed, adult monsters, and they have similar intellectual makeups of humans. Like humans, they like to play around and act like children when given the opportunity and the blessing of their ruler, but like human adults, they have inter-personal relationships that come into play, something Max doesn't understand. As such, Max's overly simplistic plans for the world seem good at the outset, but are impossible to implement along those lines. The wild things suffer and grow disillusioned with him, rebel, and ultimately Max realises that his home is where he belongs, not running a kingdom he doesn't understand.

Records is incredible as Max. There is a brief moment at the end where, in an otherwise silent shot, he briefly raises eyebrows to convey his emotion, and it speaks depth far belying his age. Keener is stunning as the mother, all to briefly on screen, in the 'real-world' scenes. In fact, the 'real-world' scenes and storyline is pretty much faultless. It is so emotive and beautifully portrayed.

The 'monster-world' looks incredible. The vocal work from the likes of James Gandolfini, Lauren Ambrose, Paul Dano, Catherine O'Hara, Forest Whitaker and Chris Cooper is terrific. The CGI is, quite simply, stunning. Their faces are so, so real, as real as you could hope. Impeccable work. The sets look terrific, the songs complementing the visuals (by Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs) have a childish simplicity mixed with the complexity you need for adult drama that truly pays off, and the cinematography pushes the drama without overpowering it, something that quite easily could have happened considering the splenour of some of the locations.

Where it falls over is in its reliance on childish naivety, and the tendency to rest happily on sentiment. Scenes of young playfulness are perfect to watch, but the lulls in between without really any drama to fuel the movement between these scenes hit hard. It becomes a little repetitive in the notion that Max doesn't understand what makes the real world (as opposed to the 'real-world') tick. We get that - give me another story-arc or else I'm going to think it should have been a fifty-minute feature. Maybe nine sentences is too little to bank on for a feature film. Maybe it's going a little too far.

Maybe a more experienced screenwriter might have helped this along. Dave Eggers was largely responsible for the script. His novel A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius (aside: incredible title for a book) suffered, I think, from this same problem. By about two thirds of the way through, I got that his life was hard and kept throwing up obstacles, and I just wanted another narrative arc to come into play. Times are tough, yes, but there are only so many times I can hear about before I get bored with it. Same goes here.

I wasn't bored, though, to clarify. But I was ultimately disappointed. I think it could have been an incredible piece of cinema, I really do. I think expectations were built up by the stories about the troubled production (and I should mention here Spike Jonze, who directed it, and did a very good job under the circumstances - I think he's an amazing director, but I'm pining to see him make a film consisting of the 'real-world' elements on display here), and it didn't live up to them. I don't think it ever had ambition to live up to them, either. It was meant to be a simple story, modestly told, that was over-hyped by budgets, studios and a hugely long production timeline, and that means it was almost doomed to not live up to those lofty heights.

It's a good film, I'll give it that. It's not a great film, and that's what hurts. 3.5 stars. As much for the excellent individual elements. Without any one of them, it would be 3.

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