Wild Things has indie cred, not nostalgia

Saying this won’t halt any productions, but I wish Hollywood would stop co-opting my childhood to turn a profit.

Coming soon to a theater near you is a slate of board game and action figure-based movies inspired by the success of Transformers and G.I. Joe — which if you haven’t heard about, gaze ye upon the Variety archives and despair.

Somewhere in between the Seuss adaptations, Disney’s mindless sequels to its animated classics and a Peter Berg-directed version of Battleship is Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are. Opening Friday, the long-awaited adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s beloved 1963 classic is certainly the most interesting reappropriation of children’s popular culture by Hollywood.

Much has been made of the length of Sendak’s original story — a mere 10 sentences — and rightfully so. There isn’t strong precedent to show that stories such as Where the Wild Things Are — wonderful as short, colorful representations of childhood fantasies and realities — can work in any capacity as features.

For example, recall Ron Howard’s very mainstream and uninspired 2000 adaption of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Going even further down an ignominious list brings us to first-time film director Bo Welch’s particularly terrible version of Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat.

For all the failings of those films, their main flaw is at the screenplay level. Very few writers could overcome the challenge of expanding a simple story without bloating it. Part of the reason why the 1966 animated version of Grinch sits on a completely different level of quality than Howard’s overstuffed Christmas epic — other than the legendary Boris Karloff narration — is the simple reason that a 30-minute adaptation simply works better than a feature-length film.

It’s easy to mock the aforementioned Welch for making an awful film, but he was essentially a great production designer out of his element as director of a story not really meant for feature adaptation. He and Spike Jonze have at least the production design background in common, and Jonze’s films and music videos have all been marked by truly inspired art direction.

In fact, the art direction is the vortex around which the buzz for Where The Wild Things Are is swirling; people seem more enamored with the trailer’s visuals than of where Jonze is taking the story itself. To Jonze’s credit, the film’s look is truly exceptional and, rather than any forced nostalgia for Sendak’s story, is what initially drew my attention. It certainly looks a world better than the awkward stop-motion of Wes Anderson’s upcoming adaptation of The Fantastic Mr. Fox by Roald Dahl — my favorite children’s author.

Though Jonze might be a visual master, he’s untested as a screenwriter and, inevitably, no longer has the talented Charlie Kaufman to lean on. Co-writer Dave Eggers has a surer résumé as a writer, but his list of screenwriting credits is just as short as Jonze’s. The film’s well-publicized and seemingly unending production woes are also a cause for concern.

The problems with Where the Wild Things Are stem from a far deeper place than any issues behind its production. Even if the movie is great — which it could very well be — there is something sinister about the particular way Hollywood produced and is now marketing the film. What burns me about this particular strip-mining job on our collective childhoods is the way that Hollywood has infused the film and the marketing campaign with a certain hip indie sensibility.

It seems as though the focus of the marketing for the film, particularly the instant-classic trailer, is Jonze rather than the Wild Things; the hip, talented filmmaker rather than the legendary story itself — which is being ripped apart anyway to be rebuilt as a nearly two-hour film.

After all, what Wild Things-loving kid is going to care an ounce that the film was directed by the genius behind Being John Malkovich and Adaptation? What child is going to recognize the great indie anthem of “Wake Up” by The Arcade Fire that lends the images of the trailer such power?

At least Transformers and G.I. Joe — terrible though they are — don’t carry the stuffy air of a children’s story being marketed as an indie art film. And at least those upcoming board game and action figure movies are co-opting a part of my childhood that didn’t leave any lasting emotional impact.

Especially because it is culled from a book I loved in a way that feels hollow and unnecessary, Jonze’s film doesn’t excite the child in me nearly to the degree that Up or Ponyo did, or that The Princess and the Frog or Toy Story 3 are just beginning to.

But as one of the great visual artists of his generation, every film Jonze makes is worth seeing, even if it is just to see what he does and doesn’t do.

I’m actually glad my expectations have been brought low by early reviews and the confused tantrums of my inner child. I’ll just make sure I don’t see it in a corporate multiplex — I certainly wouldn’t want to lose my indie cred.

John Wheeler is a senior majoring in cinema-television critical studies and East Asian languages and cultures. His column, “The Multiplex,” runs Fridays.