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Thursday, February 24, 2011

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You don’t need magic to be magical. “Where the Wild Things Are” is the least fantastical fantasy and the most raw, honest, personal and magical film about childhood angst since … ever?
“Alice in Wonderland” and “The Wizard of Oz” covered different ground. They went for the surreal, drenching their broad fantasies in bright colors and exaggerated characters.
Instead of polite young ladies, “Where the Wild Things Are” concerns an angry young man with a changing home life and the tone and palate of his film reflects that darker mood.
Like “E.T.,” “Wild Things” concerns a lonely boy living with his mother, who is divorced from his father. We meet Max (Max Records, man what a find) in an abrupt cut from the displaying of the film’s corporate logos (which Max has “doodled” all over) to the young wild thing chasing after his poor dog.
He wants his sister, Claire (Pepita Emmerichs), to come outside and play but she’s busy with her older friends. So he throws snowballs at them, giggling when they join in the game … until it goes too far and Max ends up in tears. And then retaliates in a way that he later regrets.Same with his relationship with his mom (the perfect Catherine Keener). They have an adorable scene where we see her struggling with a work project, but taking the time to transcribe one of Max’s stories, told as he picks at the stockings covering her feet. But, like Claire, she has a boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo) taking attention away from him. So he retaliates in a way that he later regrets.
That’s childhood. Emotions all over the place, having tantrums when you don’t get your way, then feeling bad about it later, even as you look for a reason for it to not be your fault.
Of course, children haven’t cornered the market on getting upset, doing something stupid and regretting it later.
There have been and will be plenty of wonderful stories about the frustrations and joys of childhood. This story happens to have started with a picture book by Maurice Sendak, then adapted for the screen by author Dave Eggers.
It took more than five years, $80 million and the Jim Henson’s Creature Shop to get here. But more than anything, it took Spike Jonze, the director of “Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation” and a suitably bizarre new Kanye West video.
This is very much a Spike Jonze film. It’s less a book adaptation than a work of art, recognizable as Jonze’s from the first frame. The oddness; the blend of the real and the bizarre; the intimate, almost documentary feel of the camerawork. And the adult content.
“Wild Things” is rated PG, but in keeping with the idea that children are not precious dolls to be sheltered from reality or sedated so adults can do other things, Jonze does not deliver a cute, bright, ADHD-friendly product.
This is neither “Up” nor “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.”So what.
“The Dark Crystal” was dark. Even “The Secret of NIMH” had some terrors. Remember crying at the start of “Bambi,” or at the end of “E.T.”? Adults aren’t the only ones capable of complex emotions.
You could argue that “Wild Things” is not a political correct film in that it offers a “real” child as a protagonist, not a bad child who learns his lesson or a good little boy who is rewarded. Max is all kinetic energy — usually in an innocent way, but when he gets upset he tends to lash out. Perhaps you’ve met a misbehaving child before.
Also, the creatures he meets on the island he sails to — they’re not perfect either. Fitting since they’re all composites of Max and the people in his life.
They are joyful and trusting one minute, jealous and angry the next. They hurt each other emotionally and physically. Sometimes they even threaten to eat Max, their anointed king.
But they all go on a journey together and learn from each other. Everyone parts changed in some way, including Max who gains some much-needed perspective.
If anything, the film argues for more connection between parents and children as a way to temper some of the loneliness and anger of a changing world. And, like “The Dangerous Book for Boys,” it’s a call for a return to the wild world of childhood adventure.
My local paper ran a wire review of this film, arguing that it lacked warmth and whimsy. It made me sad to read that, since I saw a very different film.
The world I visited was filled with warmth — between mother and child, king and companions. It made me chuckle and it made me cry, which I was not expecting.
There’s really nothing like standing on a cliff surrounded by howling creatures, watching the sun set over the ocean. It was beautiful in its realism. You could almost believe it. In a word, it was magical.

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