Thursday, October 15, 2009

Where The Wild Things Are

Genre: Family/Comedy/Drama/AlternativePremise: A young boy runs away from home and discovers a group of monsters known as the "Wild Things."
About: Up until the trailer debuted, Where The Wild Things Are was known more for its troubled production than its potential to be a hit film. This is a 2005 draft of the script, but since it went into production in 2006, it may very well be the draft they used. What's certain is that in screening the first cut of the film last year and watching kids leave the theater screaming and crying, Warner Brothers knew they had to do some major tweaking to the movie. I'm not sure how much of their changes were rewrites and reshoots and how much was recutting the film, but even though a lot of what I saw in the trailer was the same stuff I read in the script, I'm assuming that some fairly big changes were made.
Writer: Dave Eggers and Spike Jonze

This is something I’m thinking of doing regularly on the site. Maybe not every weekend, but every two or three weeks. So be sure to let me know if you’d like to see more of it. Basically, I want to occasionally review a script from a movie that’s opening that weekend, just to anlayze the film from a different angle (that angle being the screenplay). For the first of these installments, I’ve decided to tackle one of the most embattled productions in Hollywood history, Where The Wild Things Are.

Now before I get into any of that, I have to say that when the trailer first came out for this movie, I was one of many people picking their jaws up off the floor. For something that’s had such extensive negative press, this movie looked…beautiful. I was so blown away, in fact, that I was surprised that anything had gone wrong at all. Spike Jonze had somehow created an aesthetic that was both childlike and sophisticated, big-budget yet independent. It’s rare to see something these days that truly succeeds in being different, but there’s no arguing that Jonze has achieved that here.

Stripping away all the infectious images from the trailer (which wasn’t easy), the script for Where The Wild Things Are was a bit of a strange beast (yes, I went there). If this is indeed the script that they filmed, I’m not surprised at the way the children reacted. There is a boundless childlike enthusiasm that pulses through the veins of this tale, but also a pervasive darkness that sits atop a misguided and unclear message. I don’t think there’s any question that Spike Jonze is a director first and a writer second, so I'm assuming most of the mistakes here were made by him.

8 year old Max's divorced mother is trying desperately to raise two kids on her own. Her new boyfriend, who sees Max’s creativity and desire to play more as a cry for attention than the sign of a thoughtful child, has only served to create distance between Max and his mom. Normally Max would go to his sister in these trying times, but she’s going through the whole puberty thing, and talking to boys has taken precedence over playing with brothers. To make matters worse, Max is learning about horrible things at school, such as the fact that the sun is going to die out in a few million years. For a boy whose only thoughts used to be where he was going to play the next day, all this shit is a serious buzzkill.

The pressures of the house reach their boiling point and Max decides the best course of action is to leave. So he runs away, finding an unattended sailboat in the local lake. He hops in and steers towards a faraway island. This mystical island happens to be inhabited by large 9 foot creatures called Wild Things. When Max first encounters the Wild Things, it appears they’re going to eat him, but at the last second Max convinces them that he’s their king, and he goes from the monsters' supper to the monsters' leader.

It appears that this is where Jonze’s writing inexperience caught up with him. Once the setup is over, your story needs a direction, and it doesn't look like Spike Jonze ever found one (if he was looking for one at all). After Max meets the Wild Things, they sort of play around for awhile, with the occasionally not-so-vague inference that one of them is going to eat Max (monsters threatening to eat kids plays well to the 3-6 crowd I hear). Each day of playing is also coupled with melancholy ruminations about life and death (death plays well to just about any crowd). Make no mistake, this is a dark and dreary interpretation of a children's tale, which didn't bother me particularly, but I can see some parents wondering if it's the best way to spend a Saturday afternoon. What concerned me was that the story wasn't going anywhere. What the hell was the point to it all. Then, right as I was about to give up, Max gets the idea to create the ultimate mega-fort, and he enlists the help of the Wild Things to build it. For the first time, the story had momentum, and I found myself excited about the potential possibilities.

However we quickly realize there's no good reason to build this fort and all that great momentum comes crumbling down. Max figures this out too, as at a certain point the fort is simply abandoned. I guess in a way this is how a child's mind works. He follows his flights of fancy and as soon as he gets bored, he moves on to the next thing. However, it's always a gamble to rest your plot on the workings of "how it happens in real life" (as I was just talking about in the comments section for "An Education") because, quite frankly, real life is usually a lot more boring than the movies.

This leads us back to the primary issue I had with the screenplay: What is it all about? You don't have a clear story. You don't have a clear point. What is it we're supposed to get out of this experience? All I can do is make a guess. Jonze wasn't interested in telling a story. He wanted to follow a child acting like a child, and if that meant defying logic and convention, then that's exactly what he was going to do. This was always going to be a random jaunt into an ambitiously creative, but ultimately confused young child's mind. What we get here was a "feeling" more than a film, and that certainly sounds like something Spike Jonze would shoot for. With what I saw in that trailer, he might have just pulled it off, even if the script didn't do it for me.

After this great marketing campaign, I can't *not* go see this. I'm also fascinated with what changes they forced Jonze to make, so a comparison between script and film will be fun. This is one of a tiny number of projects that may be able to withstand its lackluster scripts.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] barely kept my interest
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: The writing style here is beyond nauseating. Every single little detail, including what’s going on in Max’s head, is documented. Do not use this script as a template to write spec scripts. It’s clearly a director reminding himself what to focus on come shooting time.