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WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE

© 2009 Ron Barbagallo

Every once in a while a director comes along and takes an established film genre and turns it on its side, spins it upside down and creates something completely new yet completely classic at the same time.

 

 

Coppola did this with the gangster picture genre in The Godfather by adding family drama to the Mafioso storyline. Later on, in the film Goodfellas, Scorsese stabbed Coppola's vision with a blue-collared, first-person narrative and an increasingly frenetic tempo that made the audience a part of the anxiety his characters were feeling. As much of an innovation as that was, a few years later, Quentin Tarentino fractured the gangster story into components and, with a cast of kitschy actors who spoke in long pop-art styled soliloquies, gave us his version of Pulp Fiction.

 

 

Like these films, at first glance, Where the Wild Things Are might not strike you as what you were expecting but in this case, that's a good thing. We've been pre-programmed to slapstick humor, exaggerated facial expressions and topical gags from our kids’ films. While Where the Wild Things Are is reverend to both the 338 words of Maurice Sendak's book of the same name and the look of the characters he created, David Eggers and Spike Jonze have updated this film genre with a twist by imbuing character traits, personalities and even neurosis to Sendak's furry, dysfunctional family.

Carol, voiced by James Gandolfini, in Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are

The film starts out straightforward enough with a Cinéma vérité documentary-styled look at Catherine Keener who is a single mother trying on the hats of single parenthood while balancing a work-at-home job and a social life. If the familiar casting of Mark Ruffalo as Keener's tactless boyfriend was not enough a tell-tale sign that this was an indie film for adults and not another kids’ trip to Madagascar, there is an other wonderful indicator in an early scene with the Mom played by Keener, which may or may not be a nod to Pixar's John Lasseter, where she is on the phone with her boss, "Mr. Lasseter," who seems to have a problem with the direction of her work. As many insiders working in animation know, in the early 80s, before joining Pixar, John Lasseter (along with animator Glen Keane) created a short test film while at Disney in advance of an abandoned adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are. This conversation might be an inside joke indicating to the audience that this is not going to be just any kid's film and in so many ways, it's not.

 

 

For starters, the pacing and feel of the film parallel that of many contemporary indie films where slower more emotional music, thoughtful storytelling and introverted performances take center stage. Here, instead of endless scenes of goofy monsters falling on their butts (which for the purist is here, too), Jonze and co-screenwriter Eggers focus on the crusades and enlightenment of children, modern children, how and why they play, and how they learn is looked at from all angles. In many ways, Jonze's film is a story about the phenomenon of childhood written for adults.

In that the lead character Max has the wants that all children have: attention from his mother and acceptance from his friends. But the pains of childhood and balancing act of single-parenting have many jagged edges and the story really opens up when Max runs away from home and encounters the Wild Things in the land where they live. Within short form we learn that the Wild Things are not waiting for Max to be his perfect playmates and that Max has not landed in some stuffed-toyed nirvana. Instead the Wild Things are fully realized characters -- charming and happy from first appearances but, like all of us, complex and vulnerable just under the surface. Eggers and Jonze have carefully layered childish games and silly romps with moving moments of character interplay and fragile bursts of ego that will touch the audience as deeply as they motivate Max and the Wild Things to grow and to learn. As with real children, the interplay between Max and the Wild Things will affect you in ways you will not see coming, as in one scene between Max and Carol, the Pablo Picasso-esque self-appointed leader of the Wild Things, a moment of unexpected self-awareness and growth that may move you to tears.

 

If you think about it, these themes are not alien within children’s’ literature or the movies adapted from them. You only have to watch the Scarecrow, Tin Woodsman and Cowardly Lion learn from Dorothy's journey or enjoy the unique and diverse personalities Walt Disney imbued into the Brothers Grimm's Seven Dwarfs. Maurice Sendak's original book may be thin on pathos but Jonze's fleshing out of the Sendak's Wild Things gives his characters a purpose that resonates. For critics of the film who wanted something silly and empty, there is little doubt that Jonze's version of this book has not hurt the franchise, but embellished it. For anyone with a soul, Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are is simply moving cinema with an indie spin.

All images are © Warner Bros. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

 

The author would like to thank Sarah Baisley for her help.

 

This article and interview is owned by © Ron Barbagallo.

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ARTICLES ON AESTHETICS IN ANIMATION

BY RON BARBAGALLO:

 

The Art of Making Pixar's Ratatouille is revealed by way of an introductory article followed by interviews with production designer Harley Jessup, director of photography/lighting Sharon Calahan and the film's writer/director Brad Bird.

 

Design with a Purpose, an interview with Ralph Eggleston uses production art from Wall-E to illustrate the production design of Pixar's cautionary tale of a robot on a futuristic Earth.

 

Shedding Light on the Little Matchgirl traces the path director Roger Allers and the Disney Studio took in adapting the Hans Christian Andersen story to animation.

 

The Destiny of Dalí's Destino, in 1946, Walt Disney invited Salvador Dalí to create an animated short based upon his surrealist art. This writing illustrates how this short got started and tells the story of the film's aesthetic.

 

A Blade Of Grass is a tour through the aesthetics of 2D background painting at the Disney Studio from 1928 through 1942.

 

Lorenzo, director / production designer Mike Gabriel created a visual tour de force in this Academy Award® nominated Disney short. This article chronicles how the short was made and includes an interview with Mike Gabriel.

 

Tim Burton's Corpse Bride, an interview with Graham G. Maiden's narrates the process involved with taking Tim Burton's concept art and translating Tim's sketches and paintings into fully articulated stop motion puppets.

 

Wallace & Gromit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit, in an interview exclusive to this web site, Nick Park speaks about his influences, on how he uses drawing to tell a story and tells us what it was like to bring Wallace and Gromit to the big screen.

 

 

For a complete list of PUBLISHED WORK AND WRITINGS by Ron Barbagallo,

click on the link above and scroll down.