In the critical din about Spike Jonze’ vision of Sendak’s glorious little book, count me one more small voice in the chorus of unqualified love and admiration. It is now a hat-trick: the three most affecting, technically intriguing, emotionally-complicated films I’ve seen this year have all been children’s films. (And I still await Wes Anderson’s stab at the genre, and it’s not counting Miyazaki’s very fine but thinner Ponyo.) I really want to see it again–this time without the two toddlers behind me chattering and cooing over various sequences and/or various snacks and/or other things that popped into their head when the film wandered off rumpus into reverie. But, at the moment, it feels like the best film I’ve seen.
The film, like the book, opens with Max in wolf suit, thrashing down the stairs, fork in hand, chasing the dog. As he grabs the dog, squeezing with dangerous aggressive pleasure, the film freezes and the title is scribbled (in the inimitable freehand thin-lined letters of the posters). The subsequent scenes lay out a whole rich particular family backstory, without any exposition, without much dialogue really: Jonze relies on the face of Max Records–a truly lovely performance, which is true of everyone involved here, person, voice, or puppet, but most true of Max. We watch him watch, at home, then on the island of the Beasts, then back home. He learns by seeing. He may not always know what he’s learned, or be able to articulate–but you can tell from his face that he is undoubtedly learning. Similarly–astonishingly, with such precision and restraint–Jonze lets us learn by seeing. We may not always know what we’ve learned, either. Like the book the point is the depiction of an open emotional imaginative landscape, the *experience* of that landscape and those emotions.
I don’t think enough can be said about the wonder of these Beasts. Technically, they are astounding–so utterly, artfully alive. And the voices … I expected to be won over by Gandolfini, a brilliant choice, an actor so forcefully alive to an Expressionist performance of even the most inconsequential lines. And his Carol is, as expected, wondrous and central. But I was startled by each and every one of these creatures — Lauren Ambrose’s deeply-empathetic KW, Catherine O’Hara’s sarcastic pessmist Judith, Chris Cooper’s low-key keeper-of-the-peace Douglas, Forest Whitaker’s self-deprecating and self-less Ira, and Paul Dano’s small whiny maligned Alexander. I loved the mucus running from their noses, the big porous fleshiness of their faces, the sclerotic roll of their eyes, the constant expressive reactiveness of their faces.
The film, like the book, resists plotted motion, instead (as noted above) shuffling between the child’s rush in and out of rumpus and reverie. The careful attention to planning and building things, the equally-attentive carelessness of smashing and warring. If you wanted to complain in any way, you could perhaps say that after an hour on the island, as Max begins to realize he’s no King, that he can’t fix or control or even totally understand the messy life of family, the film too has to get stuck and wander a bit aimlessly, has to work up to the idea of leaving this island. (But as you can already see, this seemed necessary, right, to me. So I can’t complain, or even qualify my enthusiasm, too much.)
And surely the film is a study of Max’s rich inner life, and in so doing also richly allegorizes the power of imagining. But I’ll close with (minor spoiler, perhaps) my own sense that it is also a movie about love. Many reviewers note that each of these Things seems some neat Freudian analogue to a piece of Max’s psyche. Okay. That surely works. But I began to think of them less as separate emotional characterizations than as many facets of love. What Max does on the island is explore and revel in and fear and fight with the many diverse, complicated ways he loves others, and himself. And when he gets home–after climbing back on his boat, crossing the ocean in and out of days, jumping ashore, running through the forest, barking at the neighbor’s dog, and slowly creeping into the kitchen–his mother hugs him. Without any dialogue, she sits him down to eat, and they stare at one another. As her eyes slowly close, as she falls asleep, we watch Max watching her… and it’s the most wonderful, heartbreaking, wordless window into his love for her…
One of my favorite bits of film acting ever is a small scene in Nobody’s Fool where Paul Newman’s aged scoundrel Sully sits listening to his grandson–a boy he hardly knows–eat ice cream and talk about how his (estranged) parents will get back together and his brother will treat him better and everyone will be happy. As the boy talks, the camera slowly gets just slightly closer to Newman’s face, and all we do is watch him watch. This scene between Keener and Records–and the work of Records–is now up on that visual shelf, too.
I loved this movie.