WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, directed by Spike Jonze, written by Jonze and Dave Eggers, 100 minutes, rated PG.
There were so many ways “Where the Wild Things Are” could have gone wrong, but it didn’t. Spike Jonze’s film adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s beloved 1963 illustrated children’s book, which consists of a mere 338 words, takes its subject seriously, which is critical to its success.
Childhood, after all, is serious. It’s not Romper Room. It’s not all playtime with the PlayStation 3. The world is a scary place — it still is, maybe even more so when you’re an adult — and so what Jonze achieves through his and Dave Eggers’ script is a movie that fleshes out Sendak’s book, but which does so in ways that are thoughtful, meaningful and real in spite of the story’s underlying elements of fantasy.
This is the movie Ron Howard should have created in his botched adaptation of “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” But Howard, eager for a big box-office opening, ruined that movie because the serious undercurrent running through it didn’t lend itself to the bloated piece of excess he wanted to press upon the masses.
Jonze gets it right. He sees childhood for what it is right now — fractured families fraught with divorce, unhappy children unable to fully sort out feelings of anger and rage, growing pains tossed in with fleeting moments of happiness — and he taps into the unrest that stems from this.
He has, in a sense, deepened the work that came before it. Some are so close to the book that they will disagree with that notion, but by taking Sendak’s core themes and reflecting them upon what’s happening now with children in the increasingly fractured family unit, he actually has made those themes more timely and relevant.
Handheld camera in tow, Jonze follows Max (Max Records, terrific), a boy who just wants to be a boy (he’s a bit older here than in the book), but who is becoming undone by the pressures surrounding him. His mother (Catherine Keener) is divorced and dating (Mark Ruffalo). His older sister is of that age where older sisters have zero time for younger brothers. And so, in the face of his stinging loneliness — and all the other feelings assailing him — Max acts out, at one point biting his mother, which causes a reaction that leads to his running away from home.
Here, the switch from reality to fantasy is seamless. On a boat, Max sails across fantastic waters that lead him to another land. It’s a wild journey, but it’s nothing compared to what comes next — the enormous Wild Things themselves, all beautifully realized and voiced by James Gandolfini, Catherine O’Hara, Paul Dana, Chris Cooper, Lauren Ambrose and Forest Whitaker. They’re an unhappy bunch — not unlike Max’s own family — and so when he is deemed their king after he lies about possessing special powers, he realizes that he now must try to make them happy. For a while he succeeds, but nothing lasts forever. And what is Max to do when he realizes that he has let these enormous beasts down, and fooled them along the way?
Life lessons unfurl in “Where the Wild Things Are,” but not to the point of whacking audiences over the head with them. Jonze is more subtle than that. He always has been sort of childlike himself, and so he allows Max his difficult mission of self-discovery by observing him with unforced insights that are revealed in his multitude of mistakes.
On DVD and Blu-ray disc
NORTH BY NORTHWEST: 50th Anniversary Edition, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, written by Ernest Lehman, 136 minutes, unrated.
Now here is something worth celebrating — the 50th anniversary of Alfred Hitchcock’s great thriller “North by Northwest,” which looks and sounds terrific on Blu-ray disc. The film reminds us what most of today’s thrillers could be (there are exceptions) if only Hollywood concentrated more on story and character development, rather than on the next natural disaster to be created by computer simulation.
For those who haven’t seen the film, it’s about a case of mistaken identity. Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is mistaken for the mysterious George Kaplin by a group of spies who deal in the exportation of U.S. government secrets. Thornhill is abducted by these spies, brought to the estate of Philip Vandamm (James Mason) — who heads the operation — and is interrogated by him. Thornhill denies he’s Kaplin, but soon is forced to become him in a bizarre effort to save his life.
Along the way, the twists and turns are harrowing — he’s framed for a murder, sought after by the police, meets the cool and gorgeous Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), falls in love with her, gets double-crossed by her, takes two bullets in the chest from her, escapes the dips of a crop-dusting plane (an iconic sequence), finds himself hanging from the stony lips of dead presidents on Mount Rushmore, and ultimately wins the girl.
And what a girl. Saint is so dead-on sizzling with Grant, the simmering heat created between them could melt a lesser star’s implants. Hitchcock knew he couldn’t pair Grant with a strong woman like Joan Crawford or Bette Davis — it never would have worked, and in his career, Grant never was paired with either of them. Instead, Grant needed someone bright, pretty and malleable. He got that in Saint.
Propelled not by explosions but by its wit and its performances, “North by Northwest” has become over the years a blueprint for filmmakers in its technical brilliance. While it’s a shame that that blueprint is greatly overlooked by the majority of today’s directors, who seem determined to turn today’s heroes into nail-chomping, bullet-biting, harpoon-hurling cartoons, there has been a shift. Creeping back onto the screen in, say, the Bond and Bourne franchises are savvy, intelligent characters with enough charisma to give us hope that being deadly and suave doesn’t necessarily equate an early box-office death.
WeekinRewind.com is the site for Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s blog, DVD giveaways and movie reviews. Smith’s reviews appear Fridays and weekends in Lifestyle, as well as on bangordailynews.com. He may be reached at Christopher@weekinrewind.com.