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Where the Wild Things Are
A kids movie for the hardcore Spike Jonze audience.
Where the Wild Things Are
Movie Based on Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are."
OPENING WEEKEND: $15,000,000
DOMESTIC TOTAL: $46,000,000
  This Film is NOT a Future Release.
  The Following Preview has been Archived.

March 30th, 2009: "Where the Wild Things Are" follows the adventures of Max, a head-strong young boy who leaves home after having a fight with his mother -- only to find himself in a mysterious forest bordering a vast sea. Misunderstood and rebellious, Max sets sail to the land of the Wild Things, where mischief reigns. The adventure film will use a unique process to bring the story to life, incorporating the most dynamic elements of voice performance, live-action puppetry and computer animation.

What to Expect: Hollywood doesn't have much luck with film adaptations of kids' picture books. Not that there have been all that many attempts. Cat in the Hat? Dismal. The Grinch? Sacrilegious. It isn't surprising that the 6-and-under age group of fiction isn't exactly a fertile mine field for filmmaking. A book that you can read aloud in less than ten minutes doesn't usually provide enough story to fill a 90 minute feature film, which leaves plenty of room for directors and writers (and yes, nervous studio execs) to fill in the gaps with whatever they think might sell tickets, resulting in a shoddy mess of a film that usually lacks any artistic integrity.

Article continues below

But let's talk for a minute about Spike Jonze.

It surprised me to find that "Where the Wild Things Are" is only Jonze's third feature film. I think of him as far more prolific than that, and of course he is, but the lion's share of his output has been music videos. Not just any music videos, no sirree, but some of the best, most creative and most memorable music videos ever. The Beastie Boys' "Sabotage," the classic Fatboy Slim "Weapon of Choice" video featuring Christopher Walken dancing, and the fantastic Weezer "Buddy Holly" video which integrated the band with clips from "Happy Days." His two feature films, "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation," both written by Charlie Kaufman, were part of the too-hip-for-their-own-good Hollywood clique that also includes filmmakers like David O. Russell as well as writers like David Foster Wallace, Michael Chabon and the rest of the McSweeney's crowd. Spike isn't someone you hire when you want a conventional film. Even if the story you hand him is conventional, seems like you could depend on him to find a way to make it not so much.

A film version of the much-beloved, classic Caldecott-winning children's book "Where the Wild Things Are," known to millions of children and adults and still a bestseller today, had been discussed for years, but author Maurice Sendak was never confident there was a director who could film his book...until he saw "Being John Malkovich," and knew he'd found his man. He personally asked Jonze to helm a film adaptation of WTWTA. Jonze took the film to Universal, who snapped it up immediately. They were so excited that they put a trailer for the film before the theatrical release of "The Grinch."

In the year 2000.

Yep, you read that right. The first trailer for this film broke almost a decade ago. Jump the gun a bit, Universal? Just a touch. Because Spike Jonze is no Ron Howard, and they were probably envisioning magical fairylands, brightly candy colored, with ready-for-merchandising friendly monsters...all CGI, of course...and an adorable moppet of a child star. Instead, Jonze wanted to film the monsters live-action, in 9-foot-high suits, with faces to be done by CGI, filmed on unremarkable outdoor locations, with emotionally complex storylines. They were suddenly less than thrilled. So Jonze took his act on the road, to Warner Bros.

Then he had to write a script. He enlisted author Dave Eggers to help him, and in 2005 they turned in a quirky, imaginative and edgy story, much expanded from the book's ten-sentence length, with creative set pieces. The huge open-call casting led to the casting of appropriately-named Max Records as Max, the rebellious little boy sent to bed without supper in his wolf suit. Filming began in April 2006 with a cast of voice actors including James Gandolfini, Forest Whitaker, Catherine O'Hara, Paul Dano and initially Michelle Williams. Williams left the production because her voice didn't suit the character. Interesting that she says she left on her own, but the production says she was recast. At the time Williams was attached to the late Heath Ledger, although these days she's dating Spike Jonze. Hmmm.

Anyway. Jonze and Eggers and the cast had a lot of close contact with Sendak throughout the production. Voice actor Tom Noonan described video conferences they held in which Sendak encouraged them to be kids, and act like they'd always wanted to but couldn't. The actors inside the rubber suits would listen to recordings of the voice actors while they were shooting, so that the voices could inspire their body language, and cameras recorded their facial expressions so that later animators would have a physical reference for the Wild Things' faces. In 2007, some stills were released to rapturous reactions, and even some borderline-awkward test footage was explained as just a special effects screen test and not part of the actual film. Seemed like everything was going great, which as Indiana Jones might say, is usually when everything falls apart.

Because then there was a test screening. Lord save us all from test screenings. Who do they get for these things, a bunch of gun-shy soccer moms and old grandmas who thought "The Wizard of Oz" was too scary? Rumblings from the screenings, reports that the audiences thought it was dark, weird and not suitable for kids...suddenly there was a delay of a year. The film was supposed to come out last fall. You may have noticed that it didn't. Last summer, rumors abounded that Warner Bros. was going to reshoot parts of the film Or that they were going to reshoot the whole thing. And that Jonze was being replaced. They hated it. They wanted a kid's film, they got a Jonze film. And on and on. Actor Forest Whitaker, who'd seen the test version with his own kids, spoke out in support of Jonze's vision. The Intarwebz were outraged. Outraged!

Now, here's the thing. I didn't see the test screening, obviously. And usually when the suits get nervous and start meddling, it's a bad idea. But the fact is that we don't know how that first cut was. This might be a case when the whole "it's not a kids' film" might be a legitimate criticism. It's one thing to candy-coat the later Harry Potter books to make them more kid-friendly. But WTWTA is a kids' book. Aimed at the six-and-under crowd. Would it really be so terrible if the film were actually suitable for that age? Now, that being said, I always feel that grownups (especially of the suit-wearing variety) wildly misjudge what actually is suitable for a little kid. Kids like things a little creepy and weird. They don't need everything to be primary-colored and Elmo. And I don't think a kid younger than five or so ought to be in a theater no matter what the movie. If the only criticism is that the film's a bit strange and dark, I don't think that precludes it from being suitable for the WTWTA age range.

But the whole thing seems to have been made out to be more than it was. Reshoots did occur, about a month's worth, but under Jonze's direction. The studio ended up supporting him, saying that they only wanted to give him time and money to make the film better, which could be the company line it sounds like, or the truth. Jonze himself acknowledges the awkwardness, comparing it to the studio expecting a son but having to learn to love their new daughter, but hasn't said anything to indicate that his vision was compromised. And based on the trailer we just saw a few days ago, and the whole style and look of the marketing campaign, especially the decidedly subversive one-sheet featuring Max shouting out to the skies and a Wild Thing cut off at the jawline, it certainly seems like a Jonze film. When was the last time you saw a kids' film with an Arcade Fire song in the trailer?

Not that everybody's signing up for the love-in. Oscar winning effects wizard Howard Berger, who worked on "The Chronicles of Narnia" and has a rep for being a nice guy, spoke out and said that he'd been approached to work on the film but declined, saying that he was "horrified" by the direction they were taking and wanted no part of it.


But the more stills and clips that are released, the more the film looks beautiful, creative and Jonzeian. Warner Bros. insists they don't want to scrub it clean and make it shiny, and they'd have a hard time justifying going against Jonze's vision when they were the ones who greenlit his project knowing full well what they were getting themselves into. There were rumors that they weren't happy with Max Records' acting, but he wasn't recast, so I guess we'll see how he is for ourselves.

I don't know. I'm a bit conflicted about this. I abhor the common practice of dumbing down a film and sanitizing it to be kid-friendly, but...come on. This is a book aimed at five year olds. If anything, this is smelling more like a case of edging it up to appeal to grownups. There's nothing wrong with that, either, but I really think the film needs to appeal to the book's target demographic and not exclude them just because Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers want to be dark and edgy. If we've learned anything in the Age of Pixar it's that it is totally possible to make films that appeal to kids and grownups alike, and if any material should be able to bridge this gap, it's this book, which is about the power of imagination and how kids use it to deal with the harsh realities of the world that they aren't yet equipped to deal with directly. It sure looks like that's the theme the film goes for, using the land of the Wild Things as a parallel to Max's troubled life at home. The sister he doesn't get along with, the mother (Catherine Keener) who has a new boyfriend...all of it is reborn in the land of the Wild Things, where Max is king.

In Conclusion: If this film can't appeal to small children and their parents, it will fail, no matter how brilliant and creative it is. Those of us who already like the Jonze style will probably love it no matter what, but so many kids have loved this book, kids of now and kids of the past, that no one will want to see that story artificially darkened for hipness' sake. The troubled mutterings of reshoots and audience/studio dissatisfaction have dogged the film's long, long slog to the cineplexes. Whether or not it pays off will depend entirely on how many kids have nightmares.

Similar Titles: How The Grinch Stole Christmas, The Chronicles of Narnia - The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Spiderwick Chronicles, Bridge to Terabithia
October 16th, 2009 (wide)
March 2nd, 2010 (DVD)

Warner Bros. Pictures

Spike Jonze

Catherine Keener, Benicio Del Toro, Forest Whitaker, Lauren Ambrose, Catherine OHara, Tom Noonan, Michael Berry, James Gandolfini, Paul Dano

Total: 86 vote(s).

Drama, Fantasy, Kids & Family

Click here to view site

Rated PG for mild thematic elements, some adventure action and brief language.

94 min





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