Spike Jonze teamed up with Lance Bangs for this interesting documentary about the man who wrote the book on which Jonze based his excellent live action film, Where The Wild Things Are. Entitled, appropriately enough, Tell Them Anything You Want: A Portrait Of Maurice Sendak, the documentary provides an intimate look into the life and work of one of children's literature's most unusual, though important, luminaries.
Sendak, now in his eighties, has an obsession with death and mortality that does tend to come through in his work and that's a fairly important part of this forty minute examination. Often prone to telling his critics off (and usually in no uncertain terms), Sendak has been a figure of some controversy over the years, some concerned parents feeling that his work is too dark or too scary for young kids. Jonze, while preparing for Where The Wild Things Are, spent a fair bit of time getting to know the author and illustrator of the source material and that's essentially how this documentary came to be. As the movie plays out in front of us, Sendak talks about his personal world views and elaborates on why he feels the way he feels about certain things. Recounting all of the discussions would take away from the picture for those who haven't seen it but let it suffice to say that Sendak has got the 'cranky old man' thing down perfectly and you never once get the impression that he's putting on a show for the camera.
Input from James Gandolfini, Meryl Streep, Catherine Keener, and Tony Kushner offer some insight into the effect that his work has had on people and why it's as appreciated as it is in certain circles but most of the discussion comes from Sendak himself. He speaks about his childhood, about his family life and what it was like growing up in the household he knew before moving on to cover how and why he got into writing and illustrating children's books. Thought certainly not without a very keen sense of humor, there's a certain sense of sadness to Sendak, who talks about how he's never really felt to have found true happiness and how he seems obsessed with his own mortality. He's got an obvious interest in the more unusual side of life, and he makes it perfectly clear that what he finds interesting or even fascinating other's may not, but if you think about that, kids generally lean towards the odd and the bizarre which makes his quirky slant a good fit for his occupation and his art.
Some interesting illustrations and archival photographs are included here in between the interview segments but ultimately this plays almost like a confessional session with the viewer playing the part of the priest. Sendak doesn't ask for our forgiveness or how to make amends for what he's done, but he does spill his guts to a certain extent and it becomes abundantly clear as the documentary progresses just how much of his 'self' is put into his storytelling. While Where The Wild Things Are does, understandably, get a bit more attention than his other films, his Holocaust themed In The Night Kitchen also receives some thorough and very interesting examination. What stands out the most here, however, are the bits where he opens up about his homosexuality, his rather sad childhood where he was raised by parents who saw him as an accident, about his dislike of the children his books are geared towards and other odd, assorted character bits that serve to flesh out the man behind the work and provide, as the title suggests, a true portrait, albeit in video form.
Tell Them Anything You Want looks very good in this 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen presentation. Colors are well defined, skin tones look lifelike and natural and black levels are pretty stable and generally quite strong. There aren't any problems with mpeg compression artifacts to complain about nor is there any edge enhancement. Some periodic shimmering and aliasing is present and noticeable along diagonal lines but it's minor and never particularly distracting. Detail, while not exactly revelatory, is also decent enough while contrast looks to be properly set. This is pretty much a problem free transfer.
The audio chores are handled by a fine Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo mix that benefits from clean, clear dialogue and properly balanced levels. There isn't a whole lot to the mix - it's basically interviews and people talking - but this track takes care of business without any problems. There are no issues with hiss or distortion to note and you won't have any problems understanding any of the various participants that Jonze and Bangs have lined up for the film. Optional subtitles are offered in English only.
The first extra on the disc is a short bit entitled Maurice at the World's Fair (3:25) which is a brief but amusing filmed version of a story that Sendak told Jonze from his childhood trip. Sendak, Jonze and Catherine Keener play the story out as a mock silent film and it works surprisingly well. Up next is a Q&A With Spike Jonze And Maurice Sendak (28:35) bit that was shot at The Museum of Modern Art. Here the two interviewees field questions about their collaborative efforts, bringing Where The Wild Things Are to the big screen, and about working on the documentary included as the feature in this set. You get the impression that the two have really enjoyed working together and that they have a very sincere affection and respect for one another. Maurice's Birthday Tribute (17:50) is a fun recording of an event held to honor Sendak's birthday that features speeches and readings from Sendak's body of work by the likes of Meryl Streep, James Gandolfini, and Catherine Keener as well as a speech from Sendak himself. This is done as a multi-media presentation so it's more than just eighteen minutes of people reading into a microphone. Some clever editing and splicing uses some of Sendak's artwork to compliment the storytelling here and it's quite well done.
The DVD of course includes menus and chapter selection and comes housed inside an attractive cardboard slipcase alongside some poignant liner notes from author and playwright Tony Kushner that do a great job of setting up the documentary before you even get to it. It's a very classy package that's designed with completely appropriate artwork that stays in the spirit of Sendak's work.
You don't even have to love Where The Wild Things Are to appreciate Tell Them Anything You Want (though it couldn't hurt). This is a documentary that paints a fascinating and often times very touching portrait of a man and his work, simultaneously paying tribute to Sendak and his creations and explaining why he and his output are so important to so many people. Oscilloscope Laboratories' DVD looks and sounds quite good and contains a fantastic selection of supplements that compliment and elaborate on the feature itself, making this release an easy one to highly recommend.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.