"I didn't set out to make a children's movie; I set out to make a movie about childhood." -- Spike Jonze
Flipping through "Where the Wild Things Are", Maurice Sendak's beloved children's book, should take you roughly four to five minutes considering that you don't longingly gaze at the intricacy of the illustrations. It's understandable for an author to be skeptical of transforming this brief experience into a feature-length film, something Sendak wrestled with until he came upon director Spike Jonze (Adaptation., Being John Malkovich) and his imaginative yet reverent aims. Jonze's creation, with Sendak in close proximity during the process, is an elongated take on the children's book that's as inspired and entrancing as the source, a somber but rapturously creative vision of childhood fantasy that's as tender as it is artistically captivating.
Naturally, the story is simple. Max (Max Records) is a confused, mischievous -- and, some might argue, spoiled -- boy who, while wearing a gray wolf's costume similar to Ralphie's in A Christmas Story, hops on a counter and yells to his mother (Catherine Keener), with her boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo) in the next room, "I'll eat you up!" Though not openly stated, it's assumed that this is a single-parent family and that Max's rage might swing on this fact. He defiantly flouts his mother's calls to go to bed, bites her on the shoulder, and bolts out the door in the heat of the moment, later finding his way to a boat on a river bank. After hopping in and going for a late-night sail to a distant island, he's greeted to the snarls, growls, and massive bodies of mammoth beasts wreaking havoc in a far-away forest upon his arrival, showing us that they're in angered disorder.
Max has a moment of fear upon first seeing the wide-eyed, large-toothed "Wild Things", which might be shared with the younger crowd in the audience. He gawks at their capacity for destruction in the forest, nervously lurking in the shadows in his own beastly outfit as he sees unthinkably large beings -- well, one in particular -- blasting holes in giant dome-like structures that they're calling homes. He sees a ray of himself in the beast's destruction, a random wildness that he identifies with, and runs in their midst to "help" in the bedlam. When the monsters first spot him, Spike Jonze bears the film's teeth; an important part of creating the mood comes in realizing that these beasts are dangerous to Max, which occurs when they all swarm around him with ferociousness in full force. It's in Max's knee-jerk assertion for them to halt, followed by his child-minded musings declaring himself a magical, dominant king, that the innocent whimsy at this picture's core grabs hold.
Maurice Sendak's book sketches out the "Wild Things" with unmatched personality, so it almost seems obvious for Spike Jonze to get Jim Henson's Creature Shop to breathe life into these well-known faces. Well, they do so, and impeccably; with a mix of computer-generated effects and intricate visualizations, they ensnare their familiar looks with step-by-step precision. As they punch symmetrical holes in trunks, leap up to smash their heads on overlying branches, and pile together for comforting naps, there's a tangibility created that shows an expected advancement in construction since Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal. But, more than that, they've constructed monsters that are frightening yet gentle, fearsome yet warming to our eyes. They're inviting, even after they threaten to eat Max up.
What Jonze and writer David Eggers have also done is given each of them names, personalities, and voices, something they obviously don't have in the book, and the marriage they find between the visualizations in Sendak's illustrations to the vocal work is pitch-perfect. James Gandolfini scruffily blurts Carol, the flailing, violent ringleader whom Max denies favoring, while it's hard not to recognize Forest Whitaker as the mumbling Ida, Catherine O'Hara as the sharp-tongued Judith, Chris Cooper as the affable bird creature Douglas, and the others. They're individual and charming, but along with that they reflect little facets of Max's own youthful brazenness -- as well as bits and pieces of friends and family he wishes he had back home. The scripting for their dialogue does reflect a children's book sensibility with bluntness of dialogue, but the sincerity of the characters speaks louder.
Where the Wild Things Are might focus on these wild ones running amuck, human and monster alike, but it's mostly about a child's need for escape -- and this piece of organic artwork that Spike Jonze has crafted is a realm where we're easily able to get lost. Shot in Australia with his Adaptation. and Malkovich cinematographer Lance Acord, the lush locations take us into an environment that feels as isolated as, well, a child's imaginary paradise should. Tall trees drench the visuals with a thick, natural essence, giving us beauty in a wooded area that looks like a snapshot of any kid's embellished memory of a magical forest. As they shift from desert dunes and dense rocky terrains, they sprawl out in all directions in a way that never takes us away from believing in this personal utopia. Then there's a scene where Carol shows Max his hand-built model of his idea of utopia, which uses a level of design creativity and meticulous, symmetric photography that's simply breathtaking. There's a lot of eye-candy here, but that's part of the whimsical grandeur of it all.
Simple, creative aims, along with a vibrant musical accompaniment, carry us through a potent emotional gradient between Max and his new pals that changes colors with the picture up until the end. He builds a tightly-woven relationship with Carol, the dominant Alpha-male sort of figure in the group, almost in the way he might with the father we never see. Along the way, there's a female beast, KW (Lauren Ambrose), that has estranged herself from the group -- especially from Carol -- because she's found two other "friends" in this world. The understanding and open-armed way Max handles her straying from the pack reflects the ways that he ought to have handled his mother's relationship with her new boyfriend, though he still tries to reconcile KW and Carol. He also has to make heads-and-tails about a goat-like creature (Paul Dano) being bullied and not listened to, which speaks to any kid stuck in Max's situation at home. Will kids overlook these figurative glimpses? On the surface, possibly, but they might slip unaware into their minds as they're fixated on Max's world.
That's where the magic of Jonze's "adaptation" lies, though it's more of an author-approved reimagining than anything; though the pacing drags due to a lack of story development, there's an overall experience in being entranced with Max's wild yet tender rumpus with the "Wild Things" that's delightfully mesmerizing. We're taken into the confines of his imagination for over an hour and a half, which is built in a way that keeps both younger and older audiences in mind. Children of Max's age and younger will sit back and marvel at the magic behind his trip to where the wild things are, sparking a sense of imagination in them that might just encourage their own picturesque invented realms. However, this experience takes on a completely different aura with those older folks familiar with the book, creating a nostalgic trip into the magical world that they likely duplicated for themselves as a younger age, and forgotten. From the second Max defies the odds and claims his authority over the cannibalistic "Wild Things" to the overwhelming affection for his mother that calls him home, this is a piece of artwork with a glowing heart and unyielding love for Sendak's book.
Video and Audio:
Where the Wild Things Are fires on all creative cylinders with its production design, sublime cinematography, and meticulous construction of the monsters, which we'd assume would render into a startling Blu-ray image. However, this 2.35:1 1080p VC-1 encode merely does respectable justice to the work put into the visuals, all without offering much in the way of gawk-worthy HD luster. The film's downkey beauty speaks for itself through Spike Jonze's signature earthy coloring, in majestic Australian locations and the slaved-over builds for the "Wild Things", and the overall look is replicated here to a great extent. What's missing is a sense of natural film presence; plenty of dense texture enters into the picture at almost all points, from Carol's fur to treebark and rocky terrains, but it's hard not to be mildly let down by the digital, somewhat bland look in the way many shots are rendered.
Detail isn't as well-defined as you would imagine, looking muddy in the beasts' coats and in the terrain shots, while anything in motion struggles a bit to keep pace with the image -- resulting in a few scattered instances of blocking and aliasing that are visible, but not distracting. This doesn't affect all of the scenic shots, though, since since some of the beach-side sequences and most of the sandy dunes are still staggeringly beautiful. Black levels lean a little to the gray side and a few mid-distance close-ups are muddy and unstable, but other than that the overall color timing and contrast representation impress. Lowered expectations will still offer an attractive experience with tons of cinematic beauty, but it's not the astonishing high-definition experience that it could've been.
To counterbalance this discrepancy in visual quality, the DTS HD Master Audio track offers a thoroughly enveloping experience that nails down the picture's mood. With each footstep from the beasts and each hole blasted in a trunk, the lower and middle frequency channels experience a healthy push of activity that's replicated with crisp aural punch. Both Gandolfini and Whitaker's throaty voices also test the mid-range points in the sound spectrum, while the others retain appropriate buoyancy and personality. The key element to the picture's aura, however, comes in the gleeful, snappy musical accompaniment, preserved splendidly here in a way that never loses the film's whimsy. Percussion punches up and down all over the place, retaining its kids-at-play mood well. French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks also accompany the film, along with optional English SDH, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles.
New Live-Action/Animated Short: Higglety Pigglety Pop! (23:30, HD VC-1):
An adaptation of Maurice Sendak's book of the same name, Higglety Pigglety Pop! follows a runaway terrier named Jennie as she ventures into the city to look for added meaning to her live. Even though she's got everything she needs at her home, she still feels like something's missing. What she discovers, as told to her by the head of recruitment for the World Goose acting troupe, is that she lacks "experience" -- which, in Jennie's rush to obtain experience, is the path that this Chris Laviz and Maciek Szczerbowski-directed short takes us on. Packed with the same creative panache as the main feature itself, only with bolder blasts of coloring and a few darker elements, this 23-minute short feature enchants with both heart and meaningful purpose.
HBO First Look (13:02, HD VC-1):
At first, this piece focuses on Sendak's reluctance to adapt the book, emphasizing Spike Jonze being the right guy to properly -- and artistically -- adapt his film. But after it discusses tone and replicating the content, a few great behind-the-scenes sequences find focus on the foam-laden recording studios. It discusses Max Records as the heart of the picture and his lack of experience, as well as Spike Jonze's individualized look to his "throwback" picture.
Shorts by Lance Bangs (HD VC-1):
After that, this collection of featurettes expand on the topics addressed in the HBO piece, often using the same footage to a very repetitious degree. They include: Maurice and Spike (3:15), Max and Spike (6:37), The Records Family (6:45), and a piece focusing on co-composer Carter Burwell (4:39). On top of those, a few behind-the-scenes glimpses introduce new material to us, including a piece that illustrates The Absurd Difficulty of Filming a Dog Running and Barking At the Same Time (5:32), The Big Prank (3:32), Vampire Attack (:51), and lastly The Kids Take Over the Picture (4:57).
First accessing the menu design looks like it'll offer a wide array of special features on the film's construction, but what's discovered is that they're simply high in number and low in new content. Certain large omissions are disappointing but possibly understandable; since Jonze didn't record audio commentaries on his Adaptation or Being John Malkovich DVDs, that absence is slightly understandable. However, the lack of production artwork, lengthy behind-the-scenes glimpses into Jim Henson's Creature Shop, or even a trailer isn't quite as excusable. Disc Two contains both a Digital Copy and DVD presentation of the film, though the DVD itself is without any special features.
It was unsure exactly how Spike Jonze could take a fleeting experience like flipping through Maurice Sendak's book and transform it into a feature-length film, but he's done so with Where the Wild Things Are in grand fashion. His artistic eye takes center-stage in creating the fantastical world Max's trollops through, creating charm about the lush visuals that paints a child's escapism sublimely. Visually, technically, and emotionally, it's a purely enjoyable piece of work that grasps the very nature of the book with just the right blend of deviation and respect for its original content. Though the visual treatment isn't quite as exemplary as expected and the special features are lacking in density, Warner Brothers' Blu-ray offers an appropriate high-definition viewing experience with the film and a handful of watchable special features -- which includes the excellent short film, Higglety Pigglety Pop! The return value to Where the Wild Things Are will largely depend on your readiness to repeat an entrancing, if slightly overstretched, journey through a realm of "Wild Things", but it's an experience that I can Highly Recommend.
Note: Screenshots in this review are from the Combo Disc included, and do not represent the quality of the Blu-ray disc.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site