Can Spike Jonze save 'Where the Wild Things Are'?
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.
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.
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