The word visionary is thrown about, when discussing a beloved filmmaker, as if it were just any other bombastic superlative. With every hot young filmmaker getting called it by the release of their first film, it has seemingly become nothing more than another bit of hyperbole tossed into the ether in this era of Twitter instant reactions standing for film criticism. However, the title is not without the occasional perfect fit.
Enter Spike Jonze.
Almost from the start of his career, Jonze has been on the forefront of what film can truly do narratively and aesthetically. Be it his breathtaking music video work or his handful of instant-classic feature films, Jonze has become one of this generation’s most beloved filmmakers, and will likely go down as one of its most influential and important. And he’s only just begun.
With only four feature films under his belt, to have such a noticeable impact on not only film but pop culture in general, Jonze has given us four bonafide masterpieces. And yet, one stands head and shoulders above the rest, and its one that is in dire need of a far more extensive home video release.
Where The Wild Things Are is Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggars adaptation of the beloved children’s book of the same name from writer Maurice Sendak, and since its release in 2009, it has stood as one of that decade’s true crowning achievements. Expanding upon the relatively bare bones narrative from Sendak’s brilliant book, Eggers and Jonze tell the story of Max, a seemingly normal young boy in the midst of youthful revolution. With a mother herself trying to find love and a sister who is far more distant than he’d like her to be, Max runs away from home following a scolding from his mother after biting her, only to discover a new “family” in the form of a collection of great and majestic beasts lovingly known as the wild things. An unforgettable, melancholy and truly haunting meditation on the schizophrenic nature of adolescence, Jonze’s film is a tender masterpiece that gets the experience of growing up to a depth that we have never truly seen on the big screen.
Max is played here by young thespian Max Records, an actor who has only seen various bit parts throughout his career. HIs biggest role outside of this picture coming in the form of David Gordon Green’s dreadful The Sitter, he’s an absolute revelation here. A hard nut to crack based on the original Sendak book, Records gets a breathlessly raw and introspective script from Jonze and Eggers, and absolutely runs with it. From the opening sequence, the film throws us into a schizophrenic and deeply melancholy world, that has Records at one moment running after the family dog with a seemingly bloodthirsty glee on his face, to the next simply yearning for a connection with his far too distant sister. It’s a towering performance that itself hints at the film’s main theme of the troubling schizophrenia that comes with growing up, and one that is both delightfully esoteric and brazenly universal. There’s a moment here anyone and everyone can relate to, and it is through Records’ beautiful and assured performance that that universality really comes to life.
And the supporting cast here is murderer’s row as well. Catherine Keener co-stars here as Max’s mother, and it is equally as beautiful and equally as universal. A single mother with a job and what appears to be a growing love life, her chemistry with Records and her character’s relationship with her son is the film’s greatest achievement. When Max meets the wild things, he’s introduced to giants like Carol, Alexander, Judith and KW. Carol is the ring leader, and is voiced by none other than the late, and always great James Gandolfini. Gandolfini’s greatest and most resonant performance, this may be a simple voice turn for the actor, but is one of this most layered and unforgettable pieces of work. Within his voice is housed all of the insecurities and anger that is within the head of our lead character, itself digging into one of the film’s most interesting narrative choices. Each and every Wild Thing encompasses an aspect of Max’s psyche, and they all have a handful of moments to really shine bright. Take the shy Alexander for example. Voiced by Paul Dano, the character is the manifestation of that aspect of Max that feels ignored and undervalued, something that any and every child can relate to in the most deep and primal of ways. Rounding out this superb voice cast are names like Forest Whitaker, Catherine O’Hara, Chris Cooper and Lauren Ambrose, whose KW is the unsung champion of this feature.
This may also be Jonze’s greatest and most aesthetically rewarding feature. Starting off as a bewilderingly intimate family drama, the film only slightly expands when we reach where those wild things truly are, instead opting for a decidedly smaller scale than most directors would give the viewer. Jonze’s film is a deliciously crafted children’s film that in no way talks down to the intended PG audience, instead giving them the closest thing the silver screen has ever seen to their life experience up to that point. Kinetic and dripping with imagination and creativity, Jonze’s frame is lush thanks to warm photography from Lance Acord, and a camera that never turns away from a moment, be it the most beautiful or the most ugly. A deeply human and humane picture, Jonze’s film is inarguably the greatest meditation on youthful angst and melancholy that we’ve seen this generation, if not in the entire story of film, and needs to be seen as such.
Now, unlike most films one sees highlighted here in this series of essays, this film is actually currently available not only on Blu-ray, but one with a handful of features. Including a breathtaking short film based on another story from Maurice Sendak, Higglety Pigglety Pop! Or There Must Be More To Life, the currently Blu-ray includes a series of short look at everything ranging from the breathtaking Carter Burwell score to the family of our lead actor. However, a Criterion Colleciton Blu-ray could ultimately give us something we’ve all been craving. A commentary here would be extremely welcome, as would longer looks at the score, which included original music from the one and only Karen O. Toss in a retrospective look at the career of Sendak and his impact on popular culture, and you’d have a release that would instantly be one of that year’s biggest and most sought after home video releases. The mixture of one of the ten best films of last decade and a decadent home video release makes this something that absolutely needs to happen and hopefully one day our wildest dream does come true. I would eat this release up, I’d love it so.