Tag Archive: Maurice Sendak


The other night I watched Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are for the first time. It was a random pick on broadcast TV, and I had no expectations at all. It turns out I thought it was actually pretty great. I was working on something else when my wife put it on, but I eventually set my work aside and become lost in this uniquely lovely and engrossing film.

(Andrea from Galway and Jason from Denver like this.)

CHERYL (Toronto): Agreed!

MY DAD (Fairmont, West Virginia): I agree – I enjoyed it.

CARLOS (New York): My reaction exactly

WADE (New Orleans): It was the unrealistic expectations that caused the backlash.

Backlash? I vaguely recall something about this loose adaptation of everyone’s favorite book from childhood being poorly received, but I wasn’t paying attention. Was there a backlash? I try not to pay much attention to the ongoing glut of adaptations and remakes. Occasionally there’s a really good one (Tron Legacy comes to mind.) But Where the Wild Things Are really caught me off guard with how different it was willing to be not only from the book but from other films of its ilk, and the way it was written, acted and shot like an indie drama. The cinematography is brilliant. I just love the shots of those expensive animatronic puppets with their faces obscured by shadow. It seems bold and kind of pretentious, but also perfectly natural – an idea whose time has come, especially if special-effects and color-correcting technologies make it more and more feasible. About the special effects: at many points I could not tell what was a puppet and what was enhanced by CGI. So either the effects in this film are amazing, or I’m getting old and I’ve lost touch.

The mumblecorish-ness of the dialogue really worked for me too, with the rambling, chaotic interactions between the affectionate but bitchy monsters (played by James Gandolfini, Catherine O’Hara and Forest Whitaker among others) coming across like a documentary of a struggling indie band depicted with puppets. Bottom line is these puppets talk to each other in very serious, adult tones about ridiculous things, and it works. The ingenious screenplay was co-written by Jonze with Dave Eggers. I would like to point out that both of these gentlemen were born within about a year of me.

The whole package is sort of like a cross between Peter Jackson and Wes Anderson. And I mean not only the Jackson of The Lord of the Rings, but of the much more disturbing Heavenly Creatures; Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, released at about the same time, is one of the more obvious recent touchstones with which to compare this film. Wild Things is not a masterpiece on the same level, but good enough to be in the conversation. In the “indie fantasy” scheme of things, I think it would make a great companion film to this year’s Beasts of the Southern Wild. Karen O’s orchestral-indie soundtrack (somehow rough-hewn but shimmery at the same time) ices the cake – say as if the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were covering Sufjan Stevens for kids.

I do have one complaint though (and maybe this was part of the backlash which I missed): why, why, WHY did Jonze choose not to depict the transformation of Max’s bedroom? Considering that’s the best thing about the book, and considering he had such a great design team, including KK Barrett, who did Being John Malkovich, they kind of dropped the ball there. (By the way, I recently saw Karen O’s “psycho opera” Stop the Virgens at the Sydney Opera House, which was also designed by Barrett. My review is here; you have to scroll down a bit.) That said, it’s a very beautiful film, with the wonderfully realized puppets, the jaw-dropping art and architecture created by Max and the monsters, and the many gorgeous compositions in the gloaming of sunset or sunrise, like some fantasy version of a Terrence Malick film. And my momentary disappointment was soon forgotten – at a certain point I forgot I was watching a Maurice Sendak adaptation and was just into the story that Jonze and Eggers were telling.

JOHNNY (Wiesbaden, Germany): I saw it at a movie theater and was actually bawling. The film exposes the nature of human relationships in a brutally honest way, but in such a beautiful and childlike way that you can’t withdraw from it.

WADE: People got bent out of shape because they thought there was little-to-no joy in the film. Grown-ups got upset that it was too honest about grown-up relationships and how our grown-up disfunctions and problems weigh on kids – which was often distilled in the criticism that it was too heavy or dark for kids. And it is a heavy movie for kids. Heavy, but not too grown-up, because, as Johnny pointed out, the film is about how a kid sees and internalizes grown-up relationship problems.

As for the transformation of the room, I would guess having Max run away instead was to create a real sense of separation or danger for Max’s voyage. It would have been easier for the viewer to withdraw if he could simply say “This is all in his imagination. Remember when we saw his room turn into a forest? It’s just a dream, and he’ll wake up when he smells his dinner waiting for him.”

Oh, and as to the “no joy” argument, where is the joy in the book? Maybe for three pages of Wild Rumpus. Other than that, it’s about an out-of-control kid getting punished, imagining a life away from his family and problems, and then longing for his home and family, even though that was what he wanted to escape.

Wade and Johnny are exactly right. I thought we already had this settled, but maybe it’s worth pointing out again: the best children’s literature is pretty dark. I’m not only talking about the gruesomeness of Grimm’s Fairy Tales – though here, in true fairy-tale fashion, the threat of violence constantly hangs over Max’s relationships with the monsters, who often wonder aloud whether they should continue hanging out with him or eat him. But I’m also talking about the loneliness, alienation and trauma inherent in childhood classics from The Wizard of Oz to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to E.T. Let’s face it, kids like their fiction weird and disturbing. And if there’s a distrust of authority in there, that’s only natural, and it doesn’t even have to be subversive. These kinds of stories are how kids work out their feelings. Remember how hilariously ambivalent Time Bandits was about parents? Remember how melancholy and weird the The Last Unicorn was? These are the films that speak right to us when we’re young, that we can’t pull away from, that seep their way into our consciousness and stay there as classics for the rest of our lives. Where the Wild Things Are is no doubt having that effect on a generation of youngsters even as I type. (Actually, I think it had that effect on me, too.)

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I find it impossible to neatly summarize my feelings about Beasts of the Southern Wild. After the considerable hype I couldn’t help but feel a bit let down by it. I found it way too messy and all over the place, and frankly short of the mark that I could almost palpably sense it aiming for. Yet simultaneously I thought it was uniquely brilliant and loved it in a very genuine if troubled way, the way you might love a scruffy stray dog you can’t afford to take home. It’s an impossible movie not to love. I can’t remember another instance that admiration for and disappointment in a film have resided together so comfortably in my mind. It’s like I feel a sense of ownership. This is exactly my kind of film, or would be, and maybe that’s why I’m hard on it. In any case I can’t get it off my mind.

Beasts is the debut feature from writer/director Benh Zeiltin, who hails from Queens but is now based in New Orleans. It’s quickly become the most talked-about American independent film of the year, winning the Grand Jury Prize in the US Competition at Sundance before going on to win the Camera d’Or (for best new film) at Cannes. It’s even got an early Oscar buzz. The story is not easy to explain, but if you’re not already on board with the key elements you can get from a really basic blurb – little girl hero, magical realism, backwater bayous, apocalyptic storms, rampaging prehistoric beasts, post-Katrina American mythmaking, nonprofessional actors – we don’t have much in common. Little Hushpuppy and her father Wink live somewhere on the Gulf coast in an impoverished but spirited and tight-knit delta community called the Bathtub, which seems to exist in its own space and time. When a massive storm cuts the Bathtub off from the outside world, its cantakerous residents attempt to pick up the pieces in defiance of the local authorities, while all of nature seems to be turning against civilization. Meanwhile her dad’s degrading physical and mental health creates a crisis of self-reckoning for Hushpuppy at a tender age.

Beasts screened in Official Competition here at Sydney Film Festival a few weeks after Cannes with the highest possible expectations. Local fans and cinephiles went apeshit for it, and everyone assumed it would take the Sydney Film Prize in a cakewalk. Instead the jury handed the award to Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ Alps, an icily cynical and absurdist black comedy that bitterly divided audiences here – a controversial choice (if a stream of resentful tweets counts as controversy). Me, I think Beasts is superior to Alps on most counts, and infinitely more likeable of course, but I had to admire the jury’s cojones and privately chuckle at the monkeywrenching of a consensus.

I saw Beasts on the first Friday of the festival at the opulent State Theatre, back to back with Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. Surely there won’t be a better or more interesting double feature all year. It was on the one hand a study in contrasts: Anderson’s obsessive perfectionism, his maniacal focus on design – each frame so lovingly composed the whole thing feels like an animated feature; versus Zeitlin’s rowdy, rambling, handheld, deliriously beautiful mess of a film. Yet the thematic parallels between the two are worth exploring: child protagonists, isolated rural communities, storms as key turning points. Going in my expectations were sky-high; I loved both films, but came out bearing reservations. (More on Moonrise later.)

Yeah, Beasts is a rough and messy film. Should I feel bad about pointing that out? Is that like complaining that Wu Tang Clan are too raw, or that Meg White isn’t the greatest drummer? Is it just part of the magic? Maybe the same thing would have been said about Breathless or Stranger Than Paradise when they first came out. Don’t we need a dose of, well, wild energy in cinema on a regular basis? If it was more polished would it also be more boring?

By “rough” I’m not referring to the often quite shaky hand-held camera – I’m fine with a bit of shake. To me the culprit is the editing. There are times during the film when two people are talking and it’s cut in such a way that somehow you never get a good look at either of their faces. Often you’re not sure of the shape of a room or space, or what exactly you’re looking at (however beautiful it might be), or which characters are taking part in a scene. (The fact that a lot of the dialogue is mumbled doesn’t help with the latter.) I suspect a re-edit might have solved some of those issues without selling out the film’s energy at all.

This pervasive sense of disorientation also applies in a macro way to the narrative. Within each scene the style of the film is naturalistic (and wonderfully so); but the overall story doesn’t have much organic sense. Fantasies need internal logic; here, because a lot of this made-up world goes unexplained, we’re not always sure what’s at stake, and there’s a disconnect between the crazy plot twists and the inscrutable choices made by the characters. At times we can almost hear Zeitlin and co-writer Lucy Alibar tapping away furiously on their MacBooks. “OK, now this has to happen!” Settings and locations change with little warning – we were in a hospital, but now we’re on a beach – while motivations and conflicts are taken up and set aside again like toys. It’s almost as if they wanted the story to reflect the short attention span and freeform imagination of a child. (A friend of mine compared it to Maurice Sendak; others have cited Miyazaki.) Does it work? I’m still deciding. My gut reaction is that it’s absolutely inspired at times – as zany and explosively creative as beat poetry or freestyle graffiti – but sloppy and incoherent at other times.

Some have said the film could have done without the prehistoric monsters. It’s true they don’t help the general problem of clutter in the story – it’s just one more thing that doesn’t tie together and isn’t fleshed out very well. But no way would I get rid of them. If anything I want more of them, along with more clarity about them. Likewise, curmudgeonly types said the dinosaurs didn’t belong in Terrence Malick’s masterpiece The Tree of Life; but that film wouldn’t be as visionary without them – the flights of fancy are what make the study of the family so much more. Zeitlin has established an important signpost with the audacious fantasy elements of his film: because special effects are a lot cheaper to accomplish these days, independent filmmakers don’t need to be stuck in the ghetto of realism anymore. Movie magic has been democratized.

Eight-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis’ performance as Hushpuppy has been the focus of much of the film’s press. If I can risk sounding cynical here, I think some of it amounts to so many indirect or quasi-intellectual ways of saying, “That little girl is so adorable!” I’m not saying her performance isn’t remarkable. I’m saying the commentary on it lacks nuance.

Of course it’s a remarkable performance! Kids can do amazing things when given the chance; but Quvenzhané has extraordinary poise and grit. As Roger Ebert wrote recently (in his review of Glendyn Ivin’s great Last Ride), “I have run out of words to account for young actors.” Without taking too much away from Quvenzhané, I would say Zeitlin also deserves credit for trusting in her and letting her do her thing in such a natural way. This is where the rough style of the film shines, in the way the girl’s rambling and running amok and randomly destroying things is such a part of its aesthetic. It’s reminiscent of the way Steven Spielberg’s early films seemed revolutionary in the way he allowed kids to just be themselves onscreen, with their cluttered rooms and cluttered lives, their dirty faces, their heartbreaking way of shrugging off adult abuse and neglect, their casual violence.

I found her high-pitched scream annoying, but the filmmakers must have thought it was cute because we get to hear it a lot. (Remember Carrie Henn’s tea-kettle-like squeal in Aliens? It sounds like that). Some of her character’s dialogue is a bit forced, and even sappy, especially when she talks about history or the future in a grandiose way – it’s as if she’s working too hard to impress the audience or pull their heartstrings. (Again, at these moments I hear the screenwriters tap, tap, tapping away.)

Quvenzhané’s best moments – indeed, the film’s best moments – are the seemingly improvised scenes with Dwight Henry, who plays Wink. There’s so much fierce affection there, so much electricity between the two, as Wink insists on toughening up his daughter to face a harsh world alone, it seems like documentary footage. With all the attention on the little girl, Henry’s gutty, gloriously ragged performance has somehow managed to fly under the radar. (His work is all the more amazing considering he’s a baker by trade who had never acted in a film before.)

There’s much more to discuss about Beasts of the Southern Wild – just one example is the fabulous production design, with beautifully chaotic sets and crazy vehicles welded together from scrap parts like something out of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. It’s an unforgettable film, filled with piercing ideas and images, even if it doesn’t have very good control of them. It’s the type of thing that might have blown my mind and changed the way I look at film if I’d stumbled across it as a kid late at night on cable TV – the way, say, the very messy Repo Man did. You should see it; everyone should see it – it’s definitely one of those rare indies capable of very broad appeal with little or no compromise. And years from now, when it’s considered an American classic, you can read this review in the archives and scoff at my shortsighted crotchetiness.