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A view on Blu-ray and DVD video by Leonard Norwitz

Where the Wild Things Are [Blu-ray]


(Spike Jonze, 2009)



Review by Leonard Norwitz



Theatrical: Wild Things Productions

Blu-ray: Warner Video



Region: FREE! (as verified by the Momitsu region FREE Blu-ray player)

Runtime: 1:41:01.930

Disc Size: 29,321,197,125 bytes

Feature Size: 20,098,578,432 bytes

Video Bitrate: 19.12 Mbps

Chapters: 26

Case: Standard Blu-ray case w/ 2 discs

Release date: March 2nd, 2010



Aspect ratio: 2.35:1

Resolution: 1080p / 23.976 fps

Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC Video




DTS-HD Master Audio English 3831 kbps 5.1 / 48 kHz / 3831 kbps / 24-bit (DTS Core: 5.1 / 48 kHz / 1509 kbps / 24-bit)
Dolby Digital Audio French 640 kbps 5.1 / 48 kHz / 640 kbps
Dolby Digital Audio Portuguese 640 kbps 5.1 / 48 kHz / 640 kbps
Dolby Digital Audio Spanish 640 kbps 5.1 / 48 kHz / 640 kbps



English (SDH), English,  French, Portuguese, Spanish, none



• Higgelty Piggelty Pop! – in HD (23:26)

• HBO First Look – in HD (13:00)

• 8 Behind the Scenes Shorts – in HD (ca. 55 min.)

• Digital Copy Disc



The Film: 6
Not unlike how a movie such as Avatar, with its incredibly immersive imagery, might make us credit it with more substance than it has, so, perversely, I found Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are less absorbing than it might have been otherwise simply because it is so dull to look at it. Not only does the lighting intentionally place Max and his wild things so often in shadow, but even the overall sharpness up for grabs.

Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers rethinking of Maurice Sendak's classic children's book could be thought of in developmental terms as about sharing, control, autonomy – all things that a latency age kid, especially a boy, needs to have in place if he – or she – is to graduate to adolescence. The protagonist here is Max (Max Records), who is not so good at dealing the loss of a father, the sharing of space with a sister who fails to defend him when she should, and a mother who, though evidently caring of Max, needs to make some space for own needs as well.

One night, after a particularly hard day at boyhood, Max runs away from home in his trademark furry wolf suit. His travels take him across the sea in a small boat, where, following a perilous storm he comes across a small island - uninhabited, it seems, except for a handful of outsized, stuffed creatures. Not only do these Wild Things speak – in English, thankfully – but they are even less civilized than young boys at play. Being large and particularly unruly, they are more than a little dangerous and even threaten Max with dinner – theirs, of him.

In boylike fashion, Max sees this business as opportunity to create the rules of engagement as he goes along, first convincing them, begrudgingly I might add, that he is a king from a distant land and then to accept himself as theirs. The problem is that, while real boys at real play, can opt out at any time, our creatures can't.

When Max first comes upon the creatures, they are already in the middle of an ongoing family quarrel, and Carol (James Gandolfini) is breaking up homes along with small portions of the forest. In some ways the tribulations faced by each of the beasts is a reflection of some aspect or other of Max's life – writ large and interminable. But when it comes right down to it, these guys aren't all that much fun. They are depressed and cynical – Judith, especially, skin-crawlingly voiced by Catherine O'Hara. Despite how they talk about things, the creatures are surprisingly concrete and unimaginative (except for Carol's artistic abilities), and they always manage to find the stormy side of any cloud. Rainbows for them aren't an option. We are sure that this is how Max sees himself at home, though he obviously has significantly more going for him there than his subjects in the woods.

For a movie about – and possibly for – children, there were times I had the feeling I was watching Who's Afraid of Carol & Judith meets Waiting for Godot. I was painfully aware of how much the deck is stacked against Max, and the stackers are the screenwriters, (certainly not Sendak, whose text could be read in about three minutes – if you're slow.) Max is portrayed as a kid, about nine or ten I'd guess, without friends. And though his mother (sensitively nuanced by Catherine Keener) loves and cares for him, Max won't give her room to add another man to his life (thank you, Oedipus, for your contribution to child development). Max sees himself as about as lonely as a kid can get (we might see him as petulant if he weren't so darn cute) – and one that has no options other than to mope about or destroy things. Max has an older sister with whom he once felt some closeness but who has gone on to enjoy riding around in cars with boys who can drive them.

One day, Max engages Claire and three of her friends in a surprise snowball fight, which everyone eagerly joins in – until it gets out of hand and one of the bigger kids crushes Max's snow tunnel into a drift, with Max in it. The gang leaves the scene of the crime without comment, but the boy who did the damage lingers for a moment, as if wondering if he should acknowledge some sort of unintended hurt. He decides not, and having done so won't permit himself to let Claire so much as a wave goodbye to Max. Ah, the pangs of adolescence – where one is unable to acknowledge the most perfunctory of apologies to a ten year old.

This is a painful moment in the movie, as we see Max as having no one to soothe his loss. We don't know why he has no friends his age (in school, he remains in his own head), especially in that he is so evidently charming and engaging when he chooses. Given the circumscribed world Max lives in, I ask myself: Is this a universe worth living in? Is it any wonder that Max is angry and runs away? In the book, he retires (without any of this backstory) to the safety of his room where he can safely enter world where he can express his rage and deal with it as he chooses.

In the movie, he takes his leave altogether into a dream, like so many, that touches on nightmare. He finds a place where unbridled fury is the order of the day. Yet he is reluctant to join in at the same level as that of the inhabitants. He quickly resorts to managing their pain. He negotiates, makes promises, and even when he proposes all-out war, it all comes to more pain, even loss. Ultimately, Max must return home, not so much as Sendak describes it, for comfort and reassurance, but because he is unable to put things right or to make others happy. (Since when is this a child's job!) So, unlike Sendak, who envisions a place to go where a child can go to safely and creatively express his fury, Jonze imagines a place where a child goes to learn how to try to make everyone happy and fail at the attempt. I don't get it.



Image: 6/8   NOTE: The below Blu-ray captures were taken directly from the Blu-ray disc.
The first number indicates a relative level of excellence compared to other Blu-ray video discs on a ten-point scale. The second number places this image along the full range of DVD and Blu-ray discs.

I found myself completely flummoxed by the image quality of this Blu-ray, even long before Max arrived at his magical island. I usually find some way to explain choices about lighting, filtration, lensing and art direction, but not here. I was never able to come to grips with the question of why the image is so unengaging. There is hardly a frame where I didn't question if there wasn't something amiss. Backlighting is very strong, and there is a resistance to fill lit, especially for Max, that struck me as downright pig-headed. Where we can see things "in the light" so to speak, there is a decided lack of detail and texture.

In the deep recesses of the forest, there is a kind of brightening that undoes the darkness. Grain is often present, but, again, I fail to see why it's there in the first place. Not only is the image is a gross contradistinction to Sendek's fine line drawings, it strikes me as unfantastical, and certainly unwhimsical. The creatures looked somewhat more precise than Max, which was just as troubling for me, as if they occupied two different universes – which in a way, I suppose they do – but somehow I couldn't make them converge.


Ed. - Unlike Leonard, I don't own the disc but I did see this theatrically and remember a LOT more grain than I am seeing in any of these captures. They also look soft - although it is probably NOT DNR smearing. It's hard to be positive as I may be misremembering and don't have the Blu-ray to scrutinize - but, to me, this image looks unusually flat and, possibly, over-processed. I concur with Leonard in that I don't really like what I am seeing regardless of it potentially being a purposeful effect or style.
















Audio & Music: 8/8
It is Carter Burwell's excellently contrived, dynamic and rollicking filmscore that I found wincingly at odds with DP Lance Acord's more naturalistic and rather bland imagery. The music - together with some wonderfully exaggerated galumphing in a "wild rumpus" through the woods, trees falling, huge dirt clods hitting their marks, and more proportional, but equally scary waves crashing about the little boat that Max commands – is presented in one reality, the images in another. Despite sensible attempts to alter dialogue soundspace for different scenes (forest, beach, desert, tunnels), I couldn't shake the feeling of a disconnect between the monster's voices, their physical manifestations and Max. I had less trouble if I closed my eyes, so I'm thinking it has something to do with accepting Gandolfini and company as the speaking creatures they are supposed to be. This is by no means to criticize the audio – far from it – but to try to express how the disparity between audio and image made it difficult for me to accept Jonze's universe in toto.

Operations: 6
Points off for their being no Play All function for the production shorts. I love the menu design and, of course, that wonderful font that appears all over the place.



Extras: 7
In place of an audio commentary there are some eight short films by Lance Bangs, who has made a career of short films and music videos, and which look at various aspects of production. These begin, rightly enough, with a segment titled Maurice and Spike, in which the then 80-year old American author gives his blessing, after a few previous failed attempts by other filmmakers, to Spike Jonze, known for his inventive work on Adaptation and Being John Malkovich. Sendak comments that his children's picture book, published in 1963 had its share of "controversy" and resistance to acceptance, and he expects much the same about Jonze's movie. The short films, averaging six minutes, continue with a clip about the working relationship between the director and his star, the ten-year old Max Records; Max's family; Carter Burwell, the film's composer; and other peculiarities encountered while filming. We have the impression that Max Records is one sweet kid and the effect is contagious. All the segments have a kind of freewheeling, bloggish feel about their subject, as if talented kids were making them. It's all so disarmingly expressive, one can't help but smile.

The "HBO First Look" is a more straightforward look at production issues such as casting, directing the human/wild things, and Jonze's idiosyncratic shooting style. The twenty-three minute short feature Higgelty Piggelty Pop! Or There Must Be More to Life is also based on a Sendak book, and is something of a parallel story to Where the Wild Things Are in yet another alternate universe where a dog takes the place of Max's character and runs away from home – a place where he himself says he had everything – and finds something in the world worth living for besides narcissism. I guess there is a little Ulysses in all of us.

All of the extra features are presented in good to very good quality HD and are all worth viewing. I found much to like about Higgelty Piggelty Pop! a feature, like half of the Lance Bangs shorts, not found on the DVD. There is also a promo for the Where the Wild Things Are video game and a Digital Copy Disc.



Bottom line: 6
I imagine that Where the Wild Things Are is one of those movies you either warm to or you don't. My own experience was as much interfered with by technical matters as much as text. I found the high def image to be difficult to get a handle on, whereas the audio was awesome. The discrepancy worked against itself for me. I wonder if my negative response to Jonze's notion about the function of fantasy can be moderated by a second viewing. The extra features are most enjoyable. Unless you already have you're mind made up, I suggest a rental first.

Leonard Norwitz
February 27th, 2010




About the Reviewer: I first noticed that some movies were actually "films" back around 1960 when I saw Seven Samurai (in the then popular truncated version), La Strada and The Third Man for the first time. American classics were a later and happy discovery.

My earliest teacher in Aesthetics was Alexander Sesonske, who encouraged the comparison of unlike objects. He opened my mind to the study of art in a broader sense, rather than of technique or the gratification of instantaneous events. My take on video, or audio for that matter – about which I feel more competent – is not particularly technical. Rather it is aesthetic, perceptual, psychological and strongly influenced by temporal considerations in much the same way as music. I hope you will find my musings entertaining and informative, fun, interactive and very much a work in progress.

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