Where the Wild Things Are, the new film from Spike Jonze, adapted from Maurice Sendak’s beloved children’s book, seemed at first like a far-fetched undertaking. I mean, if you pick up a copy of the book, you’ll find that there’s not much there with which to fill a full-length feature. The team behind the movie, however, has created an incredible re-invention of the book that stays true to the original story while exploring all the emotions and adventures of a misbehaving 9-year old.
The product of years of struggles with studio execs, costumes, and creative hang-ups, Where the Wild Things Are doesn’t seem to be any worse for the wear. The movie is weirdly refreshing. In a New York Timesinterview, Jonze said he didn’t want this movie to be like a typical children’s fantasy film in which the child hero voices wisdom for the ages. Instead, Max is just a little boy who is trying to cope with events and emotions that are much bigger than he is. In running away from home and exploring where the Wild Things are, Max ends up facing the very things he was running from–anger, desertion, loneliness, and a family falling apart. At this point, the film could have become sort of pedantic, driving home a message about the difficulty of growing-up or that you can’t run from your problems. Instead, the message is subtler, more open for interpretation. The viewer gets to make his or her own conclusions about how to view the Wild Things.
As Max, actor Max Records is wonderful. He is a great combination of sweet and ornery and takes on the full range of emotions experienced by Max during his adventure and does so well. As Mom, Catherine Keener really made me feel her frequent movements between affection for and frustration with Max. The scene between the two when Max returns home is especially understated and touching.
Jonze’s background in filming skateboarding movies shines through in Where the Wild Things Are, as the movie is filled with intense action shots of Max and the Wild Things rumpusing, filmed so closely you feel like you’re there. I can only guess that this movie is awesome in IMAX. The colors and lighting are beautiful. Max’s home is dreary and dimly lit in mid-winter, but the island of the Wild Things features airy sunlight and sand and deep green forest scenes. The soundtrack by Karen O. and the Kids helps set the tone of the movie as inquisitive, innocent, and sometimes edgy. Using Karen O’s music instead of the sweeping scores typical to children’s fantasy movies also gives the movie an earthy feeling.
The Wild Things themselves are pretty remarkable. The giant costumes look close enough to the original illustrations, but feel fresh. Really, it’s downright impressive that they’re not totally CGIed. And they look real. As real as they could, that is. Each Wild Thing has his or her own personality and own emotion to embody. At times, I got so caught up in trying to analyze how the Wild Things paralleled Max’s life at home that I forgot to simply enjoy the interaction between the characters. Also, that the Wild Things are named common names like Douglas and Judith is just pretty darn funny.
It stands to debate who the real audience for Where the Wild Things Are is supposed to be. Little kids? Older kids? Adults? All of the above? I can imagine that because so much of the humor of the movie comes from the absurd and silly things kids say when they’re playing, it might actually go over the heads of little kids. While I thought it was hilarious, the characters in the movie might sound a bit too much like kids do for them to hear the humor. And while the movie isn’t really frightening, some of the emotions are intense at times.
I think Where the Wild Things Are is a beautiful and fun film. It manages to combine adventure, humor, cool scenery, great music, and a meaningful array of emotions together while avoiding a forced plot or falling back on clichés of children’s movies. It made a favorite book from my childhood feel new again. I loved this movie.
Where the Wild Things Are was directed by Spike Jonze and written by Jonze and Dave Eggers based on the book by Maurice Sendak. It runs 101 minutes and is rated PG for mild thematic elements, some adventure action and brief language.