After the sheer madness of his only two feature films to date, 1999’s Being John Malkovich and 2002’s Adaptation, it’s a safe bet that Spike Jonze must have been low down on anybody’s list as the ideal director for a big screen adaptation of a hit series of children’s books.
The first of Jonze’s films revolved around a bizarre portal into the mind of an oddball character actor, puppet shows, chimpanzees and sexual frustration; the second was a film about the difficulty of writing the film itself. They were surreal, unsettling, confusing postmodern arthouse oddities that were so unlike regular Hollywood movies that it’s still impossible to work out just how they ever got made. Expose a child to either, and you’re likely to scar them for life – assuming that they have any chance of following what’s going on, of course.
Yet at the same time, there’s a strong tradition amongst children’s literature for the surreal and unsettling. The best-known example is always Dr Seuss, whose many decidedly odd books have been favourites for decades, yet even the classic tales of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen have more than their fair share of the weird and unnerving. Perhaps Jonze isn’t such a bad choice for a children’s film after all – assuming, of course, that he’s given the right subject-matter to play with.
But it’s not just Jonze who seems an unlikely choice for a children’s film. What about the biggest name among the cast, Forest Whitaker? He may be a character actor with an uncanny knack for accents, which could well make him ideal for voice work on an animated film (as this partially is), but he’s mostly specialized in arthouse films, while being best-known for his truly chilling, Oscar-winning portrayal of psychotic Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in 2006’s The Last King of Scotland, one of the most brutal films of the last few years. Alongside Whitaker is the similarly unlikely children’s film star James Gandolfini – best known as the sociopathic gangster lead character in the decidedly adult-themed TV series The Sopranos.
So, an actor best known as a violent dictator, an actor best known as a violent gangster, and a director best known for messing with our heads more than they’ve ever been messed with before. You’d surely have to really hate children to set these three loose on the cinemas with a film for the kids?
And yet, somehow, it all makes perfect sense when the film in question is an adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s 1964 children’s classic Where the Wild Things Are. The book revolved around the adventures of a small boy sent to his room without supper who escapes into an imaginary world full of monsters and madness, where he somehow subdues them and ends up crowned their king. Just ten sentences long, the book’s illustrations caught the imagination of a generation, and continue to be popular to this day, spawning in turn an opera, a musical and a ballet before this big-screen take.
With only ten sentences to play with, Jonze (who co-writes with bestselling novelist Dave Eggers) has plenty of scope to let his notoriously fertile imagination run wild – just perfect for a story largely set in an imaginary world. The end result is yet another bizarre oddity that may not be quite a masterpiece but which will nonetheless achieve the near-impossible of appealing both to fans of Jonze’s previous, decidedly grown-up offerings, and to the children to whom the book is intended to appeal. This may be a film that the kids will greatly enjoy, but it is by no means a children’s film. Instead, it’s a genuine movie event, a must-see.