Where The Wild Things Are: Civilized Misdirection


In my first post about “Where the Wild Things Are,” I considered the choice of a musical cue for the trailer.  In this post, I’d like to examine the visual elements that appear in the trailer in terms of their coordination in the editing.

The trailer opens with the sound of slow footsteps (or deep, resonant drum beats). A boy awakes in the arms of a huge, furry beast, whose astonishing silhouette he sees in the shadow cast on the forest floor as he is carried through sunlight.  The giant creature (voiced by Tony Soprano, no less) soothingly mutters, “I didn’t want to wake you, but I wanted to show you something,” which works not only in the scene under discussion, but also extra-diegetically to address the theater audience, sitting in the dark, awaiting the feature presentation.  We, like the child, emerging from the darkness of slumber, want to see what he has to show us.

At 27 seconds, Arcade Fire’s music begins and we see both the boy and his point of view, as he observes tiny creatures in a boat in a grotto (presumably, what the large furry creature wanted him to see), and then more commonplace scenes from the classroom, of his teacher, and through the window, where ominous clouds gather. Next, he rides a sailboard through choppy waters, and later spies on his mother’s date from the hallway.

Cut to scenes of the boy running in the forest and through the snow, joining the furry giant on the beach, viewing the sunset, and then to the sailboat shown before, now sailing before a terrible storm.

On a black screen, a card with copy reading “inside all of us is…..Hope” introduces a series of happy, positive, heartwarming images, of hugs, smiling faces and embraces, concluding with a bear hug between the boy and his mother.  The next card appears, featuring the copy, “Inside all of us is…..FEAR” followed by scenes of hands reaching out for hands, tears and sad or anxious faces, and the boy glimpsing a frightening face (unseen by the audience) from which he backs away. This section concludes with footage of the sail boat racing down a cresting wave amid pounding surf, at risk of foundering.

Cut to the next card on which appear the words, “Inside All of Us is Adventure,” with the final “E” of adventure drawn as a pair of hairy feet.   This card introduces a series of action shots: of the boy jumping, throwing (snowballs, etc.) running, falling, dropping and smiling. Here at the center of the trailer, excitement and kinetic energy abounds.

“From one of the most beloved books of all time” introduces the next section, featuring a series of match cuts of the boy running away from the camera in a variety of settings.

A card reading “From Author Maurice Sendak” appears, followed by match cuts of the boy running toward the camera, jumping, sliding, and smiling.

“From Director Spike Jonze” reads another card, which opens a series of action shots, skillfully  match cut and syncopated to the strains of “Wake Up.”  The boy tumbles down a snow field; his furry companion crashes into the walls of a trench.   Next, the creature and the boy, circle a tree in the forest, throw snowballs, hurl themselves and each other through the air as trees crash around and explosions litter the landscape.  This is no longer frolic and exuberance: something dangerous is chasing and threatening: a battle is taking place, although the cards and the scenes don’t explain the events shown.

“Inside all of us is a Wild Thing” is the penultimate card, followed by the gathering of furry creatures and the boy, on a bluff overlooking the sea, a scene of celebration and communion, which is followed by the Title Card and the End Credits.

The concept that appears to animate these sounds and images is, well, conceptual.  Atmospheric, emotionally direct, but vague on plot detail, the trailer for Where the Wild Things Are is generally about a boy, his imagination, discovery and danger.   With this trailer, the makers have the benefit of source material that’s already widely known; because the story is familiar in its particulars to audiences, they have the privilege of selling impression and emotion rather than narrative specifics.

From a marketing perspective–rather than an aesthetic one—selling this film through misdirection away from what might be less appealing or frightening in the story, makes commercial sense. I read this trailer as an example of well-founded discretion on the part of the marketing team, insofar as the subject matter is actually very serious and not a little disturbing.   There are hints, no doubt, audibly and in the dread and urgency of certain shots, which imply that all is not sunny and innocent in the wilderness.

As is common, the editing pace and emotional energy build steadily, following key and tempo changes in the music. While not exactly cut along the “let ‘er rip” pattern, a pronounced dramatic climax is made from the thoughtful, beautiful and affecting concatenation of images.   It has integrity and force, borrowed from the music no doubt, but equally a result of the inspired match cuts, directionality of figure and movement and the punctuating repetition of looks, gestures, faces and actions. Elements of sound, rhythm, tempo are woven with graphic elements of movement, pattern, repetition to create a bold, appealing fabric of sensory spectacle, a sampling of something familiar and as yet unknown.

I mention a few of the most distinctive: Running—toward and away from the camera, as well as across the screen—is the most common movement depicted.   But it’s the matching of  jumps, rolls, slides, hurls and drops that speeds hearts and lungs.   It’s joyful and beautiful.  Watching this trailer makes me eager to see the movie.

And that, when you tell it to the market research people, is the measure of a effective—and therefore successful–trailer.

About Frederick Greene

Entertainment Copywriter & Visiting Assistant Professor, UCLA Dept. of Theater, Film & Television. I teach a graduate seminar in new movie marketing, which focuses on the history, contemporary practice and likely future of a/v advertising for motion picture entertainment.
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