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Where the Wild Things Are: Too Costly to Succeed?

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood October 12, 2009 at 2:17AM

Where the Wild Things Are pushes my buttons.
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Thompson on Hollywood

Where the Wild Things Are pushes my buttons.

As much as I want studios to step outside the box and take chances on talented filmmakers who do not paint by numbers, every film artist is not Tim Burton. He's an unusual case of a filmmaker who hangs onto his integrity as a film artist while playing the studio game. In part he does it 1) because he wants to be successful and reach a wide audience and 2) he has producer Richard Zanuck to protect him and deal with the suits. Somehow, most of the time, Burton stays true to himself and delivers accessible entertaining movies, often on a high budget. Everyone comes out ahead.

But when Warners took Maurice Sendak's classic children's book Where the Wild Things Are and gave it to Spike Jonze to direct and novelist Dave Eggers to write, they took a path that led to a movie that is neither fish nor fowl. If they had put it through Warner Independent, they could have made a lower-cost indie version of the movie that opens next week. (At the Movies gives the movie two enthusiastic raves. Here's Variety.)

Finally, Jonze is a gifted filmmaker who has crafted an exquisitely beautiful, magical film that will be embraced by many, mostly people of whatever age who are still in touch with their inner child. It will likely play best to really young kids. (Truth is, Jonze and Eggers' script is a tad dull, as was Eggers' other co-writing gig for Away We Go.) After the brilliantly intuitive and sensitive opening sequence and the initial discovery of the animals, the movie slows to a crawl as the characters do a lot of talking. Advance tracking indicates the movie will open well, in the $25-million range. But how will it play? And does it have a chance to make back its costs?

Director Jonze has never made a wide-audience commercial studio movie. His two features, Gramercy/USA Film's Being John Malkovich and Sony's Adaptation, were considered arthouse crossovers, grossing $46.4 million and $32 million worldwide, respectively.

He has never made a family movie, nor a visual effects picture. Thus it was not a huge surprise that Where the Wild Things Are ran into turbulence at Warner Bros., which took the movie in turnaround from Universal. Jonze's initial idea was to shoot the wild things in nine-foot suits with animatronic faces in the jungles of Australia and New Zealand. After a disastrous December 2007 preview of Jonze's first cut, the studio shut down the project. The movie is "dark, adult and deep," wrote Cinemaniac1979 on aint-it-cool-news, "heart-wrenching and scary. This isn't a movie for children -- it's a movie about childhood."

Jonze did reshoots a year after he first shot the movie, mostly of the young lead, Max Record. About 10 minutes were added: two scenes at the start and one at the end. And Warners spent quite a bit on supplying animated CG faces for the animals. Production head Jeff Robinov wanted more emotion for the story and was willing to invest in making the best version of the movie. The budget started out at $75 million and wound up closer to $100 million.

Am I glad I saw this movie? Yes. But did it need to cost $100 million? No. Does it matter if this movie makes its money back?

Newsweek talks to Eggers and Sendak.

The WSJ looks at children's book adaptations.

The LAT looks at Sendak's Wild Things legacy.

Here's a taste of EW's longer feature.

The Chicago Tribune looks at the WTWTA back story.


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.