Where the Wild Things Are (2009)
New this week on home video are two of last year’s best family films — one as sad and moving as the other is whimsical and sweet.
The sad, moving one is Where the Wild Things Are, Spike Jonze’s visually stunning, messily personal take on the classic picture book. The Wild Things — an ideal blend of costume puppetry and computer-aided expressions — are the spitting image of author Maurice Sendak’s crosshatched grotesqueries, but they’re also more complicated and harder to manage.
So is Max’s life, which has been rocked by an absentee father and a mother stretched too thin between the demands of work and a new boyfriend. Things fall apart; the movie even muses alarmingly about expanding deserts consuming forests and ultimately the death of the sun itself.
Understandably, Max wants escape; but the land of the Wild Things is no comforting wish fulfillment. The Things are potent symbols blending Max’s angry, destructive impulses, his mother’s concern, his parents’ quarrels, and the reassuring voice of his absent father.
In the end, there is warmth, joy and the comfort of a mother’s love — but no artificially tidy conclusions. It’s a film brokenhearted over the messiness of the world: sad, beautiful and true.
The whimsical, sweet one is Ponyo, a delightfully loopy, surreal family film from master animator Hayao Miyazaki at his most childlike.
Vaguely inspired by Hans Christian Andersen, Ponyo is a literal fish-out-of-water tale about a young girl of the sea, Ponyo, who chooses life on land after bonding with a human boy, Sosuke.
But there’s also a gaudy aquatic wizard, a riot of extinct fish roaming flooded streets, a maternal sea goddess, a discussion about breast-feeding, and much more.
Typical Miyazaki themes include children taking on adult responsibilities, strong young heroines, sympathetic adults (including parents), respect for the elderly, ambiguous villains, and a spiritualized, animistic vision of the natural world. Parents will want to discuss some of these elements with young children.
The edition to get is the Blu-ray/DVD combo (even if you don’t have Blu-ray yet); there’s also a two-disc DVD edition.
Also new this week: 2012 is schlockmeister Roland Emmerich’s overwrought, would-be apotheosis of every disaster movie — and every disaster movie cliché — ever made. Jaw-dropping set pieces succumb to bathetic dialogue (and worse, speeches) in a secular apocalypse that seems to put an expiration date on the Christian calendar as well as the Mayan one. Skippable.
Bonus Picks: Along with Ponyo are new two-disc special editions of three classic Miyazaki family films: My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service and Castle in the Sky. All were “DVD Picks” last year when Ponyo opened; for more information, see NCRegister.com or DecentFilms.com.
Content advisory: Where the Wild Things Are: Some frightening moments; a few objectionable phrases. Too much for sensitive youngsters. Ponyo: Mildly unsettling images; a few misanthropic references; potentially confusing depiction of a goddess-like character. Generally fine family viewing.