SDCC 2009: 'Where The Wild Things Are' wows Hall H
Odd and beautiful adaptation of the Maurice Sendak classic finally debuts
I'm sure by now you've seen the trailer. It's one of my personal favorite trailers in recent memory, because it does what I feel like a great trailer should do... it teases. It gives you a taste, but it doesn't really give anything away.
Spike Jonze has taken a long and undeniably difficult road to get to this morning and, to be fair, so has Warner Bros. This is an $80 million film from the director of "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation." Not exactly a track record that makes a studio think "giant box-office guarantee." Spike's film, which I saw in rough form many many months ago, is beautiful and stark and sad and scary. It's a great film, I think, but not an easy film. I've spoken to Spike at length about the making of the film.
And today... finally... at the beginning of the Warner Bros. presentation in Hall H that kicked off the day, Spike and Warner Bros. premiered footage from the film, far more than the trailer. For me, the biggest question mark of the movie was answered conclusively today, and I can say now with all confidence... "Where The Wild Things Are" is going to be a very special movie. And the characters, the Wild Things themselves, are gloriously, amazingly alive.
Maurice Sendak appeared with Spike in a special reel that was shown at the start of the panel, and listening to him talk about how his book was fairly reviled when it came out, how his own family didn't like the book at first, and it wasn't until a few years later that the most important group of critics in literature finally weighed in on the book... the librarians. They were the ones who saw that children didn't just read the book... they internalized it. It became part of how they processed the world. It was Sendak who whispered in Spike's ear, "Make it dangerous," and he did. His film is not a safe piece of merchandising bait. It's very somber, and it's very strange, and it's conceptually quite bold, maybe as bold as either of his Kaufman collaborations.
Max Records, the boy who plays Max in the film, came on after the Sendak/Jonze film and then introduced the footage. He professed to being nervous enough to need to read the notes on his hand. He explained that he had just recently seen Maurice who said to pass along a very sweet message to the Comic-Con crowd:
"I really like this movie, and I hope they like it, because if they don't, they can all go straight to Hell."
[more after the jump]
Maurice Sendak's words in the mouth of his new junior partner in crime, Max Records. Absolutely golden.
The clip reel they showed had both an opening and a closing montage of moments from the film, and then we saw a few individual scenes. First up is the moment from the start of the trailer, where Carol (James Gandolfini) is carrying Max along, asleep. "Hey, Max... I didn't want to wake you... but I really want to show you something."
Max hops up onto Carol's shoulders for a few as they walk along. Max has been named King, so Carol is showing him his kingdom. "All of this is yours."
"All of this?"
"All of it. Except for that hole in that tree. That's Ira's."
"So everything else?"
"All of this is yours, King. Except for that little rock over there by that big rock. The little rock? No. But everything else."
"Yes, King. Except for that small stick. Everything else."
As they tease each other, they walk, and the landscape changes, until eventually they find themselves walking past sand dunes.
A giant dog walks by in the opposite direction. "What's that?"
"That's just the dog. Don't feed him, or he'll never leave you alone."
As they walk by more sand, Carol starts to get anxious. "I hate this. This used to be all rocks. Then it turned to sand. Next it'll turn to dust. I don't even know what comes after dust. Do you?"
Max stops, looks up at the sky, thinks back to his science class at the start of the film that upset him so much. "Carol, did you know the sun's going to die?"
"WHAT!? No. Where did you hear that?"
Max doesn't answer, but the idea keeps nagging at Carol.
"No... that can't happen. Can it? I mean... look at us. I'm big! And you're a King! Guys like us, we should be afraid of a little ball of fire in the sky, right?"
The next scene is the tail end of a big rumpus in the trees, where the Wild Things smash up some foliage. Max ends up at a bottom of a dogpile of Wild Things, face to face with K.W., a very wry and kind Wild Thing. She helps him get his ankle out from under "the fat guy." She asks Max where his family is. "Did you eat them?"
"No... but I bit one of them, and then I went crazy."
She tells him that she doesn't mind biters. It's the eaters she can't stand.
The next clip was all the Wild Things working together under the direction of their King to build a giant amazing fort. I could try to describe the sequence, but it's largely visual, and what moved me as I watched even these short scenes again is just how much the film seems woven from pure longing. Longing for something. It's a film that is always just about to crumble, emotionally, just holding on. And even the moments of pure fun are shot through with occasional sadness or pain.
When I saw the film, they hadn't really solved the effects issue. The Wild Things did not have faces yet. Now they do, and they are, quite simply, real. They live. They are tactile things, and they have souls. They are performing, not just holding space. Spike and his amazing effects team have done what they set out to do... they've brought these creatures to physical life in a way that's really hard to get your head around. It's subtle and beautiful.
At the IMAX presentation I went to on Wednesday, they announced that IMAX will be showing "Where The Wild Things Are" starting day and date, Oct. 16. Amazing news. I can't wait to get lost in the finished version of this world when the film is done this fall, and I'm pleased to see how strong the reaction was this morning. I think this could be a film that surprises everyone in all the right ways.
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