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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Can Spike Jonze save 'Where the Wild Things Are'?

Wildthingsbook_2 Something has gone very wrong with "Where the Wild Things Are," the much-anticipated Spike Jonze adaptation of Maurice Sendak's classic children's book. The $80-million film, with a script by literary cool-guy Dave Eggers, was filmed largely in the second half of 2006 in Australia. It was originally slated for release this October but got pushed back to the fall of 2009. Last week it disappeared entirely from the Warner Bros. release schedule, a sign of continuing troubles.

The script got good early reviews. But for months the Web has been pulsing with rumors and in-depth accounts that when Jonze had a research screening last December, kids in the audience were crying and fleeing the theater--not exactly the reaction the studio had hoped for.

Wildthings_2 As you may recall from having read the Sendak story to your own child, "Where the Wild Things Are" is about a mischievous boy who, after being sent to his room without his supper, creates a forest-like world full of exotic beasties. The movie's big problem? The boy, played by newcomer Max Records, is almost entirely unlikable, coming off as more mean-spirited and bratty than mischievous. Jonze has also had tons of issues with the wild things. Originally shot as actors in furry creature suits with animated faces, as well as animatronic puppets, they were a big disappointment. Instead of being scary or funny, they almost seemed blank, with little warmth or emotion. Jonze is now retooling the film, using CGI to create more life-like monsters.

But can the movie be saved? And when will it ever see the light of day? I just spoke to Warners chief Alan Horn, who offered, for the first time, his studio's side of the story.

Horn denied rumors that the studio has taken Jonze off the movie, saying he remains fully supportive of the filmmaker.

"We've given him more money and, even more importantly, more time for him to work on the film," Horn said. "We'd like to find a common ground that represents Spike's vision but still offers a film that really delivers for a broad-based audience. We obviously still have a challenge on our hands. But I wouldn't call it a problem, simply a challenge. No one wants to turn this into a bland, sanitized studio movie. This is a very special piece of material and we're just trying to get it right."

Warners can afford to take its time. It has an influx of 12 to 14 movies from the newly absorbed New Line studio that Warners is still trying to fit into its release schedule. The really fascinating issue about "Wild Things" is that it shows the pitfalls of Warners' strategy of marrying gifted directors to mainstream studio material. The strategy has produced a number of triumphs, most notably Chris Nolan's "Batman Begins" and the upcoming "The Dark Knight," Alfonso Cuaron's "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" and Steven Soderbergh's "Ocean's Eleven." But it has also resulted in disasters where the filmmakers have been totally miscast with the material, whether it was the Wachowski brothers' "Speed Racer" or acclaimed German "Downfall" director Oliver Hirschbiegel's "Invasion," which underwent all sorts of rewrites and reshoots but still turned out to be a flop.

Jonze I congratulate Warners for being willing to let daring artists tackle its more conventional material. No one wants to see "Where the Wild Things Are" in the hands of a paint-by-numbers filmmaker like Chris Columbus. But if Jonze has his mind set on making a dark, occasionally disturbing film, how much rope should the studio give him before it tries to rein him in? It's not an easy call. I'll give Alan Horn the last word, since he was enough of a stand-up guy to debate the issue with me.

"We try to take a few shots," he said. "Sometimes they work and sometimes they don't. The jury is still out on this one. But we remain confident that Spike is going to figure things out and at the end of the day we'll have an artistically compelling movie."

BONUS: Click below to see amazing test footage from an early 1983 Disney animation version of "Where the Wild Things Are," directed by none other than a pre-Pixar John Lasseter.

Illustration from Maurice Sendak's children's book "Where the Wild Things Are." Photo of Max Records from the film version of "Where the Wild Things Are" from Warner Bros. Photo of Spike Jonze by Francois Guillot / AFP Getty Images

Comments () | Archives (12)

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Isn't it teetering on dishonesty to not mention that a majority of The Invasion was reshot and rewritten by folks other than Oliver Hirschbiegel? You seem to put the blame on Hirschbiegel when the final product was barely his.

It might also be just a little dishonest to say that "Jonze has his mind set on making a dark, occasionally disturbing film." I highly doubt that his intent is anything other than making a film true to the source material, which has often been ascribed the qualities of "dark" and "occasionally disturbing." The book is not is malleable enough for Happy Meal toys, video games, backpacks, fruit snacks, action figures, party hats, sour gummies, et cetera—creating some for such would be a departure from Sendak's work.

I find it downright dishonest to print "he was enough of a stand-up guy to debate the issue with me" when the prior text is tantamount to a one-sided vindication. This doesn't read like a piece from someone with three decades of journalistic experience, but a blog post by someone throwing superlative and not giving full disclosure. And there is no reason why you shouldn't be able to find someone with the other side of the story, I have no doubts you have the contacts.

Being new to Southern California, what a disappointment it was to read such a poorly written article in a newspaper I have had little exposure to. This is "article" reads much more like a one sided crusade against Spike and his picture.

If not bad enough, the LA Times confuses the reader by printing a photo in its paper as though it is a shot from the actual movie, when in fact is anything but. ( ). Thank you for saving me time on deciding what papers are not worth reading. What a joke.

Sounds like the Exorcist prequel fiasco ALL OVER AGAIN. It will be equal to that if they switch directors. Mark my words.

The Wachowski's miscast? They brought a cartoon to life, what more do you want?

Could this art-meets-commerce fiasco be this century's BRAZIL?

Am I the only one who REMEMBERS reading Where the Wild Things Are? It's a DARK story. Max isn't a likable character at all. He's a selfish boy who runs away because he doesn't want to listen to his parents. I'm sure Spike Jonze is more than competent to handle this film. He's a fantastic director. My guess is they filmed this movie with the intention to make it accessible to all audiences but along the way they realized "dam, this is one dark story". I can't imagine how hard it is to find the right balance and tone in this story on the big screen. I applaud the studio for hiring someone like Spike Jonze, but I also am annoyed that people are surprised how the movie turned out. It's not a typical kids story. I just hope whatever version is finally released is the one Spike Jonze wants us to see and not the studio.

First @ Alex:

Having seen Where the Wild Things Are at one of the test screenings in December, I can verify that the image used in this article IS from the movie. It was the first promotional still, originally released on a year before the test screenings. The Slashfilm article you reference is Spike's comments to a VIDEO that had been posted several days before that was a TEST of the creatures (you can tell because you can see the Griffith Park Observatory in the background). The MTV image was used for the sake of having a picture on the post. Please take 30 seconds to read the actual blog post before wasting comment space with your ignorance.

Second, there were ZERO children crying and running out of the theater when I saw the film. There were, however, quite a few people who didn't seem to be able to grasp the concept of "work in progress-- effects not finished" though. The Wild Things are a combination of Man-in-Suit with CGI animated faces-- except there were only a few shots where the animation had even been started (and it was pretty obvious that it was not even close to finished). Afterward, I heard adults complaining "Why didn't the monsters talk?" or "Why don't their mouths move?" even though several people had told them the effects weren't finished. You would've though the wires and markers all over the background (they weren't painted out yet) would've been a dead givaway.

That being said. The version of the movie I saw was nothing short of brilliant. Max is not some vindictive little monster-- he's a kid who is hurting because he has no friends and nobody to talk to. So he acts out. It's not the Max from the book, but he's a real kid with real problems. I won't take up any more space here, but if you want to know the TRUTH about this movie and not just some heresay from a half-cocked blog entry, check out this review, written by yours truly:

If they let Spike do his thing, this will be a true masterpiece.

This "article" is no more credible than a Wikipedia entry.

Many adults who read this book as a child have absolutely zero interest in seeing a cookie-cutter version of this story, let alone taking their children to see what is destined to be a disaster, if the studio has it's way. Perhaps the studio executives themselves are challenged, and not the film.

There's only one thing I can agree on with the Los Angeles Times: they should have hired Chris Columbus, not gifted artists such as Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers, if they wanted a boring, commercial film with "broad-based" appeal. I can not think of anything less appealing.

Sendak's work has always been darker and more multi-layered than the average children's literature. He doesn't talk down to kids. He talks about some of his books in this interview:

Leave alone the parents or anyone else. I believe in Spike Jonze and I think he can make it. This is going to be the piece of art. And actually it's not the story for your dumb kids, so if you don't like the film, you just don't go to the cinema and line up for the ticket. BECAUSE JONZE'S WORK IS a piece OF ART. YOU DUMB PEOPLE MIGHT NOT APPREACIATE IT. I'M ALWAYS YOUR SIDE MR. SPIKE JONZE.

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