Review: Where the Wild Things Are
4 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund
Unlike what certainly seems to be the rest of the world's population, I didn't grow up reading Maurice Sendak's immortal children's book, “Where the Wild Things Are.” So, I can't say if writer/director Spike Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers have faithfully recreated the spirit of the beloved, 10-sentence tale in their new feature-length adaptation. I did, however, grow up building forts, playing in the woods, breaking rules, wanting to write my name on everything, creating new worlds in my imagination or with intricate miniature models, and desperately craving attention from my parents, my older sibling and her friends. It's these personal yet universal themes and cornerstones of childhood that Jonze and Eggers have so accurately and wildly captured, fleshing out Sendak's basic structure with an effervescent, heartfelt anarchy that seems to have sprung from the mind of a nine-year-old.
Such an approach is perhaps the best way this much-anticipated movie could have been made, since the bulk of the story is indeed a product of the imagination of nine-year-old Max (played by 12-year-old newcomer Max Records). We are almost always seeing the events from his point of view, and the filmmakers are savvy and sensitive enough to make that perspective relatable to anyone who remembers the competing feelings of wonder and frustration that come with being a kid. Max is introduced as someone who apparently has no friends, and who entertains himself by talking to imaginary playmates and constructing things like igloos in the snow. He's seen manipulating his older sister's friends into joining him in a snowball fight, but they're more amused than interested, and they take it too far, crushing Max's igloo and his feelings.
Max's mother (the always-welcome Catherine Keener) clearly loves her son, but she's a single mom with a presumably full-time job who can't give Max the amount of unconditional companionship he requires. On one particularly stressful night, Mom invites her boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo) over for a dinner date and entertains him instead of playing spaceship games with Max. Fed up with being ignored, Max – dressed in tailed and whiskered wolf pajamas, just like in the book – makes a raucous scene in the kitchen and storms out of the house, barreling down his suburban street as the highly original, jungle-like music by Carter Burwell and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Karen O. echoes in the background with rising vigor. When he reaches a dark, wooded area, Max begins growling and howling, and we're led to believe he's unleashing the feral creature within. He finds a boat, crosses an unnamed ocean and soon arrives at a mysterious island, the home of other untamed beasts – the tall, furry, big-headed and beclawed “Wild Things.” Feeling unthreatened and finally among kindred spirits, Max willingly introduces himself and declares himself their king – the king of a land where, at long last, carefree is the way to be.
I admired the way Jonze chose to visualize Max's journey to the island, forgoing the obvious, “Wizard of Oz”-like dream sequence and instead heading in a more seamless, natural and earthly direction. It's a style that seeps into the rest of the production, from the unvarnished, topographically diverse shooting locations of Melbourne, Australia, to the dazzling sets (which, interestingly, are built before our eyes), to the creatures themselves, which are exquisite mash-ups of minimal CGI and animatronic suits by Jim Henson's Creature Shop (another staple of my youth). How refreshing it is to see a modern, multi-million dollar fantasy film that employs old-school effects techniques and isn't bogged down by frantic, ostentatious spectacle. Even cinematographer Lance Acord's homespun, handheld camerawork – an aesthetic I've been growing tired of given its overuse in the industry – feels right, communicating Max's dreamlike state and no-rules reign over his newfound stomping grounds.
The voice actors who add life to the the surprisingly dimensional “Wild Things” are well cast, namely Catherine O'Hara as the hilariously cynical Judith, Paul Dano as the mild-mannered Alexander, and Lauren Ambrose as the aloof and free-spirited KW, who utters the highly advertised, climactic line, “Don't go. I'll eat you up I love you so.” Other voice talents include Chris Cooper, Forest Whitaker and James “Tony Soprano” Gandolfini, who grunts, grumbles and, eventually, even cries a bit as the beasts' temperamental and manic-depressive head honcho, Carol. Before his kingly powers are revealed as a sham, Max engages in plenty of uninhibited outdoor activities with his new friends, like the book's famous “Wild Rumpus” and an impromptu dirt fight. These scenes are perhaps the movies best because the characters approach the silly games with the sincere seriousness of playful children. And why shouldn't they? After all, we soon realize that the creatures are all manifestations of Max's own troubles and personality traits, each of which he must come to terms with if he is to grow and mature (psychologists will have a field day dissecting what each character represents).
If the film stumbles, it is over its insistence on being a little too somber, and there are also stretches where it's realized that the youthful frivolity, however insightfully depicted, can't really hold up to meaty drama and good, old-fashioned conflict. But the somberness is also a merit of the movie. This isn't a flashy flick for wide-eyed children, and while it probably won't scare them, it may leave them feeling pretty bored. This is, through and through, a movie for adults, many of whom will, like me, be touched by its rather heartbreaking ability to convey a believable nostalgia for the highs and lows of pre-adolescence. I found that the most remarkable thing about “Where the Wild Things Are” really has little to do with whether or not Jonze and Eggers have done Sendak's book justice (though I can only imagine that you, the rest of the known world, will be pleased). It's that both Jonze and Eggers somehow managed to tap into not only their inner children, but my inner child. Watching this movie, I often felt that what was on screen wasn't the product of the filmmakers' imaginations, but that of my own nine-year-old self. I don't think I've ever experienced that before.