To a certain extent, great movies defy explanation. They pop up in the least expected place, ignoring conventional rules and expectations - they defy relevance (a quality I've just finished celebrating in another review) in the name of a deeper resonance. These films can often be ungainly, hard to swallow - they strike us at odd angles and approach us on their own grounds, not on ours. I think Where the Wild Things Are may very well be a great movie. It's certainly a visionary piece of work, highly original and unique, unlike anything else I saw in 2009. In this sense of difference, of vision, of effectiveness on its own terms, it reminds me of two (of course) very different movies: Inglourious Basterds and Antichrist. Together, they form a trilogy of challenging, rich, rewarding movies, all of which I had numerous problems with. Yet I could eventually and only embrace them as examples of artistic accomplishment - among the most singular of this epoch.
Wild Things exists both as an aesthetic experience and a meditation on resonant themes: a combination most great narrative films employ. The screenplay, by Jonze and novelist David Eggers, sensitively "updates" Maurice Sendak's classic - respecting the power of the original while setting out on its own ground, and thus avoiding both of the traps most high-profile 00s adaptations have fallen prey to. At its core is a simple, eternal story: that of a child watching his innocence and exuberance slowly dissolve into the melancholy mists of pre-adolesence. He stomps around in his wolf suit, engages in goofy dances to make his mother laugh, acts more childish than his age should probably allow, but it's clear these are nostalgic gestures rather than unconscious actions, a display of imaginative naivitee to conceal the pain inside.
The movie creates several correspondences between the real-world opening and the surreal dreamscape of the Wild Things - a fort is crushed just like Max's snow igloo; a female monster runs off with her friends after the fashion of Max's sister; in climactic moments, tokens of affection are broken in both worlds - less as an act of hostility towards the original recipient of said tokens, than as a masochistic slaying of whatever was tender and guileless in the giver. Brilliantly, the movies does not spell out its central theme, the most important correspondence in the movie: between Max's relationship to Carol, a brooding, sensitive, sometimes brutal beast, and Max's connection to his absent father. The only sign of that missing paternal presence is a globe in Max's bedroom, which reads, "To Max, Owner of this World, love Dad." We never meet the man, but feel we get to know him through Carol (who spends the film yearning for a female friend grown distant; with a power that would dwarf a grown man, he lashes out in a childlike rage). The sense of displacement and repression only adds to the resonance.
Carol is a brilliant creation, a collaboration between James Gandolfini's sad, tentative, yet authoritative vocals and the expert mimicry of Jim Henson's Creature Shop (and, presumably, some digital enhancement to enhance the facial expressiveness). It's one of the great performances of the year; indeed all of the monsters are wonders to behold, fully realized characters crafted from singular traits and yet basted in larger-than-life warmth. By comparison, some of the human performances are a tad weak: Max Records is everything he needs to be as the star, but Catherine Keener's delivery is sometimes stilted (though her sensitive features work wonders in close-ups), and a classroom lecture about the end of the solar system feels forced and awkward.
The film skates just this side of mawkish cutesiness, going whole-hog for the childlike indie mood of current hip culture, with its Karen O vocals, earnestly Peter Pan-like nostalgia, and quirky sense of humor. It works, in part, because of the purity of its vision and because of Gandolfini's weighty presence - at times the actor's voice reminds us of another narcissistic boy-man who loomed large over the cultural zeitgeist, one prone to romanticism but hardly a sentimentalist. In his bruised self-pity and ferocious violence, Gandolfini makes the stretches of desert, wood, and beach on this magical island seem not so very far from the New Jersey Expressway. This aura of brooding darkness gives the film just the edge it needs to prevent it from sliding into the cozily blinkered worldview that has characterized creative youth culture in the past decade.
In the era of CGI, when Avatar's splashy debut is intriguing but frustratingly distancing spectacle, Spike Jonze has crafted a work with actual texture. While the film incorporates computer animation, it as an element in the overall design, a touch, not a template. Above all, the movie conveys the quality of being handcrafted - it has soul, and the soul is embodied on the very surface of the movie. This is not to suggest I fell into the movie's bear hug right away. Jonze initially employs a dizzying, off-centered compositional strategy - in the nighttime forest scenes, it's very hard to follow the action with all the whip-pans and blurred shapes moving through dark palettes. But when the camera moves out into the sun-speckled deserts and windswept beaches, it settles down somewhat and we can immerse ourselves in this world, which an IMDb commentator quite simply and effectively tags "a child's kingdom."
It's a kingdom made of sand, and the movie is content to watch, sadly but wisely, as the last granules of the sand castle are swept out to sea with Max's little wooden boat, away from the shore of dreams and into the wide world from whence he escaped, momentarily. Earlier in the movie, Carol takes Max to a secret hiding place, a cave in which he's built a miniature world (the scene plays as a tribute to Jonze's fellow music video auteur, the childlike genius Michel Gondry). "It's gonna be a place," he tells the boy wistfully, "where all the things you wanted to have happen...would happen." Jonze and Eggers are wise enough to flirt with but not indulge this fantasy wish. They allow us to visit a magical world, all the while reminding us of its fragility. Meanwhile reality bangs at the door like a jackhammer, finally blowing into our sequestered little room, and sucking us back outside. But we remember what we've seen, treasuring the crumbs that we were able to grasp as if they were keys. Keys not only to a place of escape, but a pathway into something deeper than the everyday, where the roots of our vague stirrings and longings are planted. And that's art.