The following column is reprinted from the November issue of Providence Monthly (including the stuff my youthful editors somehow deem neccessary to leave out):
Eyes Wide Open
By Scott Duhamel
I’m certainly not the first film nitcrit to draw on the parallels between the equally transfixing effects of being entranced by a first class movie as a full blown adult and the initial deep boned reaction upon hearing or reading a childhood tale as a dreamy youngster. The raw materials of story-telling, visualization, and self-projections of imagination can prompt the most primal of feelings, synthesizing images unburdened by freedom of the artist, creator, or interpreter. Yup, movies hit the gut and stay in the head like the very stories that enchanted one as open-eyed child, and movie pundits have always referred to certain imaginative filmmakers as perpetual teenagers, aging children, or petulant adults with a lifetime case of the Peter Pan syndrome.
So it comes as no surprise that three of the more intriguing contempo American directors have chosen to utilize their respective celluloid techniques and convert some classic, or at least neo-classic, children’s tales into full blown movies. The one surprise is that same three have finished movies that are virtually finding the big screens simultaneously. One could make an easy argument that Wes Anderson, Tim Burton, and Spike Bonze are movie-movie kindred spirits, all of them sporting an overall archness in their approaches, all of them drawn upon a variable understated tone of humor, and certainly all of them are undeniably devoted to providing a differentiating visual latticework in each of their cinematic efforts. Tim Burton’s version of Lewis Carroll’s estimable Alice in Wonderland is due in theaters in early 2010, Wes Anderson’s got-to-be-droll version of Roald Dahl’s much loved Fantastic Mr. Fox hits the screens in November, while Spike Jonze’s expanded take on Maurice Sendak’s unforgettable 1963 book Where the Wild Things Are is in current release. If the latter is any indication, this may signal a very welcome cinematic trend.
It’s difficult to recall another film that so effectively captures the raw-nerved landscape of emotion and physical energy, of the ever-burgeoning states of sexual and psychological awareness of pre-adolescence. Where the Wild Things Are opening sequences—with a hand held camera holding close to nine-year-old Max (newcomer Max Records) as he bounds through his house and yard, bursting with anger, imagination, and a flinty loneliness—create a heady and immediate impact. It’s a vividly detailed depiction of collapsing innocence and childhood awkwardness and somehow ineffably faithful to Sendak’s tone and style.
Yet, it’s a strange tease too, when Max, as in the Sendak book, finds his way to the mysterious island inhabited by the Wild Things (which takes up the bulk of the movie’s time), Jonze goes into a deceivingly languorous mode, and his film becomes a seductive fable propelled by sideways glances, mumbled enunciation, ambling inaction, and hanging emotions. The island’s very make-up leaves behind Sendak’s earthy backgrounds, as it contains a vast desert, hulking crags of mountainous rock, and an autumnal forest alive with growth, although the whole of it drips with melancholy. Kiddie time? Not exactly. About kiddie time? Exactly.
Sendak’s book was made up of 338 words and 18 illustrations in its entirety. Jonze and co-scenarist, novelist Dave Eggers have smartly elected to flesh out the original tale, all the while keeping close to the author’s spare and subtle depiction of Max as Freudian childking. The creatures, a combination of puppeteering and computerized facial expressions are still recognizable from Sendak’s pages, although given names and distinct personalities by Jonze and Eggers, and also given voice by some select name actors with Chris Cooper as the recalcitrant Douglas, Catherine O’Hara as the puckish Judith, Forest Whitaker as the low key Ira, Paul Dano as the ever wounded Alexander, Lauren Ambrose as the feisty KW, and a pitch perfect James Gandofini as Max’s doppelganger Carol.
Jonze has managed to paint an impeccably textured cinematic fable, both sweet and sour, about the inherent implosion of childhood, with vivid brushstrokes given to the inflated traumas and tongue-tying complications of growing up, a just about perfect reinterpretation of Sendak’s modern classic that’s part idyll, part nightmare, part real, part fantasy, all of it with a subtle emotional underpinning. The presence of the always stellar Catherine Keener as Max’s put-upon mom is another exquisite touch, as is the neatly off-center score by Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Carter Burwell. As we all know, Max’s pursuit, his self-inflicted adventure, his expressive search for self-control, ends with a return to a simple but deeply satisfying hot meal and the eternal nurturing of quintessential motherhood, and that’s just enough to probably bring a tear to the eyes of Sendak, Freud, even Walt Disney, and certainly myself.