Updated on Thursday:
It’s one of the most beloved children’s books of all time, but it remains to be seen whether Warner Bros. is marketing the film version of “Where the Wild Things Are” to the right audience.
The Spike Jonze-directed film opens Friday — more than a year after its originally scheduled release date and it’s still not clear if it’s a movie for kids, adults or hip adolescents.
At times the studio seems to be taking contradictory tacks. A “First Look” on-screen advertising featurette that’s been playing in AMC theaters portrays “Wild Things” as a film adults will love — filled with grown-up themes of rage, pain, sadness. (More dark movies adapted from kiddie books here.)
Meanwhile merchandising for the film showed up a month ago in places like Urban Outfitters, a retailer known for its hip, young sensibility. It included graphic T-shirts for men and women, along with the original book and a new movie tie-in version which are reportedly selling well.
But the trailer, which at times followed the “First Look” featurette on the very same screen, sells the film as a cuddly children’s tale with fun, furry creatures.
TV commercials, running heavily in shows ranging from the young-adult-oriented “Gossip Girl” to the very grown-up “Mad Men,” have taken the kinder, gentler approach.
And the bookstore chain Barnes & Noble has a major “Wild Things” display in the children’s section, featuring the tale by Maurice Sendak.
So who’s the movie for?
"Based on the movie trailer, the PG rating, and Jonze’s edgy reputation, parents should expect the film… to be a better fit for older kids," said one parent-oriented web-site, commonsensemedia.org. "This isn’t aimed at the kindergarten set — no matter how well versed they may be in Max’s journey."
At Warner, executives say the approach is sophisticated, which was required for a sophisticated work.
"We are very proud of this film," said Sue Kroll, president of worldwide marketing for Warner Bros. "It’s a unique and creative piece of work, and we certainly endeavored to bring that same level of creativity to our campaign."
She added: "This film speaks to the child in all of us, but ironically, it may not be appropriate for the very young."
Tracking numbers for the film indicate that the multi-pronged approach might well have worked for a complicated sell.
The film had a rising profile among family audiences, according to one tracking study, and was the first choice this weekend for 17 to 44 year olds.
Warner officials predicted the movie would do somewhere around $25 million in its first three days. And rival-studio distribution executives said that figure was probably too low.
"If the number has only a ‘2’ in front of it, I’d be surprised," said the rival studio executive.
One reason for the split personality is that Jonze and Warner Bros. were not exactly on the same page during the production process.
Jonze, the auteur behind "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation," has repeatedly said he made a film about childhood — not a children’s film.
“When we made the movie, during editing we showed it to the studio and they were surprised by what the movie was. It isn’t what they expected it to be,” Jonze told reporters during the film’s recent press junket.
“It’s just not a traditional children’s film," he said. "They were expecting sort of a pixie dust, magical fantasy film. We made the movie we wanted to make. It was a process of getting them comfortable. Basically they had to learn to love the child they had.”
“We realized this wasn’t going to be a traditional, easy-to-market children’s movie,” Dave Eggers, who co-wrote the film, told Entertainment Weekly. “I expected resistance, trepidation and fights. And by golly, they happened.”
The difference in approach caused Jonze to clash with Warner Bros. during production of the movie, which reportedly cost about $80 million — including some reshoots to make it more family-friendly. Published reports said children were scared at early test screenings, and a shift in the middle of production on how to create the Wild Things creatures themselves delayed the shoot.
“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,” Warner Bros. chairman Alan Horn told the Los Angeles Times in July 2008, “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."
“All films of this nature present a marketing challenge,” Kirk Honeycutt, film critic for the Hollywood Reporter, told TheWrap. “They’ve obviously been concerned about it and have been tinkering with it. They seem to have a campaign geared to pull in kids, and make people aware. The artwork helps, too. It’s instantly recognizable, as well as familiarity with the title.”
The Jonze-Eggers version of “Wild Things” has the full support of 81-year-old author and illustrator Sendak, who took a producer credit.
Controversy is nothing new to “Wild Things.” Sendak’s original book caused a stir when it came out, which came as a shock to the nurturing sensibility of America in the 1963. Sendak, born of Eastern European Jewish immigrant parents, reflected a European tradition embracing the complexity of childhood.
Critics continue to debate the book’s attraction for children, especially with the film coming out. In the New York Times, Bruce Handy proposed that the lead character Max’s tale is told as if from an adult perspective, perhaps one informed by psychoanalysis, which is why it is more attractive to adults than to kids.
Handy quotes Sendak’s interview to The New Yorker in 1966: “It’s only after the act of writing the book that, as an adult, I can see what has happened, and talk about fantasy as catharsis, about Max acting out his anger as he fights to grow … For me, the book was a personal exorcism. It went deeper into my own childhood than anything I’ve done before.”
Jonze began collaborating with Sendak on adapting “Wild Things” about 15 years ago, and the project was first set up at Universal Studios.
“I am most impressed with the freedom by which Spike said ‘no’ to me,” Sendak told the Los Angeles Times. “I’m so pleased with his courage, his moodiness. Children’s movies bore me to death. With Spike, I found a genuine, fierce little artist. It’s not cute and cuddly. It’s a real movie.”
"Where the Wild Things Are" stars newcomer Max Records as the 9-year-old son of a single mom who throws a raucous temper tantrum and is sent to bed without supper. He ventures off into a strange land populated by emotionally complex and somewhat scary creatures with claws, horns, pointed teeth and large stomachs that perpetually need filling.
“It doesn’t have a movie kid in it, it has a real kid, and Max’s performance is so real and raw,” Jonze said.
That reportedly was another reason the studio ordered reshoots; Max initially wasn’t very likable.
Sendak, for one, isn’t too worried about whether the film scares kids.
In a discussion with Newsweek, he was asked what he would say to parents who think the film may be too scary for their children. “I would tell them to go to hell,” the author replied. "If [kids] can’t handle it, go home. Or wet your pants. Do whatever you like. But it’s not a question that can be answered.”
Meanwhile, the appetite for advance tickets is strong, according to Fandango. “Wild Things Are” has been running third this week, after “Michael Jackson’s This Is It” and the “Twilight” sequel “New Moon.”
Wherever it ends up, opening weekend will tell whether Warner Bros.’ tinkering has paid off.
As Max says, “Let the wild rumpus start.”