I attended the 1st Annual Autumn Harvest Short Film Festival this past weekend. Orchestrated by Damien Dornford, the festival not only showcased up-and-coming filmmakers but also raised money for The Children’s Aid Foundation charity as well. 15 short films, ranging from almost every genre you can think of, were screened for a very lively audience. Be sure to keep an eye of for future installments of this festival as it should not be missed.
Where the Wild Things Are
By the time the ending credits started to role on Spike Jonze’s latest work, Where the Wild Things Are, I was not sure how to process what I had just witnessed. The film was the complete opposite of what I had expected. After reflecting on the film over the last couple of days, it became very apparent that it has been quiet sometime since a live action children’s film really stuck with me like this did.
Adapted from Maurice Sendak's classic children's story, Where the Wild Things Are follows a young boy on a fantastical journey of self-discovery. Feeling isolated from his older sister, Max (Max Records) only has his mother (Catherine Keener) to cling to. Yet when Max’s mom invites her new boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo) over for dinner, Max fears that even she has giving up on him. After running away from home, Max comes across a small sailboat at a local dock. The boat eventually leads Max to a mysterious island where monstrous Wild Things roam. After tricking the Wild Things, most notably Carol (James Gandolfini), into believing he posses magical powers, Max is crowned king of the group. Max soon realizes that even on a mysterious island you cannot runaway from your problems.
While Sendak’s children’s story is considered to be a classic by many, do not go into this film expecting a standard children’s flick. One of the brilliant aspects to this film is that it defies many of the conventions you are use to seeing in most kid’s films nowadays. Hollywood has pushed so many traditional children’s pictures, especially of the animated and/or talking animal kind, down our throats over the last few years that it actually takes a bit of time to truly adjust to the different tone and rhythm of this film. Which is one reason I think this film will catch many off guard in several sections. Where the Wild Things Are is far darker than you initially think it will be. Even the wonderfully dark film, Coraline, seems downright sunny in comparison. Jonze not only captures the dark tones of the source material but he actually engulfs himself in it. Despite the fun Max seems to have with his new found friends, you always feel that Max is walking a very fine line. There is a constant uneasiness that, at any moment, either Judith or Carol will make good on their threats of eating Max.
Jonze is able to create this world that both horrifying and invigorating for a child, through the use of life size puppets and subtle special effects. Despite the fantastical aspect of the Wild Things mere existence the bulk of their world, and of Max’s imagination, is grounded in reality. In many ways the use of full size puppets and realism reminded me of some of beloved childhood films of my youth (e.g. The Neverending Story, Dark Crystal, etc). In an era where children are mainly marketed animated movies in 3D, it is nice to see a filmmaker not afraid to buck the trend. What makes Jonze’s accomplishment even bolder is the fact that all of the Wild Things have their own identifiable qualities. Although not all get equal screen time, you still get a strong understanding of both their unique personalities; and the overall role each plays in the group. Spike Jonze skillfully shows us how each one is a reflection of the different stages of Max’s current life. Although big and fearsome at times, the Wild Things are struggling with issues of family, loneliness, love, having their voices heard, etc. Max naively thinks that by being in charge he can fix in them everything that he fears in himself. Yet as the Wild Things world seemingly get worse it becomes clear to Max that life in general was never simple to begin with. It is this realization in Max, and the audience, that allows the abrupt ending to make perfect sense. Jonze does care about wrapping things up perfectly because that is not how life works.
There are times when Spike Jonze's unique voice makes the film a little too stylized for its own good. Certain freeze frames and camera tricks take you out of the picture momentarily instead of pulling you in further. Personally I think such techniques will probably play much smoother on repeat viewings. Regardless, I am willing to let these moments slide though as the majority of the film both engaging and visually stunning. Although this is one of the better children’s films released this year, parents should note that the film is too disturbing for really young children. Older kids should not have any problems with the material as Where the Wild Things Are perfectly captures the complexities of childhood without talking down to its audience. Jonze has made yet another good film that, similar to Sendak’s original work, will probably be analyzed for generations to come.
The Full List Of Big Thoughts From A Small Mind's 2009 Reviews.