Sunday, October 18, 2009

Where the wild things aren't (quite)

Australia.

Don't get me wrong. I liked the Spike Jonze movie Where the Wild Things Are a lot. Critical reaction was highly favorable overall, but this is one of these misleading "averages" with no middle ground. It's a movie that left most critics deeply polarized between those who loved it and those who hated it. I'm much closer to the ones who loved it.

There's a lot of magic in this movie. The creatures are amazing, a very canny melding of costumes and CGI, and they express real feeling, not the synthetic substitute we see in so many children's movies. I admired the director's imagination, his love of the material and his refusal to pander in what became a big-budget studio movie. But in the end I was vaguely disappoined, and I couldn't figure out why at first. Part of it was that, as usual, I expected too much of a highly hyped movie by someone I admired. But it was more than that. And then I realized what it was.

Think if The Wizard of Oz had been filmed on location in Australia, and how different it would have been. Both movies are classic evocations of childhood and the power of fantasy and dreams (I think Where the Wild Things Are will become a classic despite its imperfections.) But there's something very important in dreams that this movie got wrong, and it's the setting, which carries so much of the emotional resonance. Sendak got that exactly right. His book wasn't just about Max and the wild things. Or rather, the wild things included more than just the creatures. Most scenes as I recall took place in the dark, or a kind of dreamy half-light. The trees and plants were expressive and in no way naturalistic. It's impossible to imagine the book without the dreamlike setting.

If ever a movie cried out for an imaginative studio set, both less real and more real than reality itself, it was this movie. I only wish Jonze and his collaborators could have had the same faith in the material and their own imaginative powers as they showed in the creation of the creatures. Then they would probably have had a true masterpiece on their hands.

But, hey -- "good" ain't bad. It's good. I just wish it had been better.

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