Movie Review: Where the Wild Things Are (10/17/09)

Movie Poster: Where the Wild Things Are

Where the Wild Things Are

Directed by Spike Jonze
Screenplay by Spike Jonze, Dave Eggers
Based on the book by Maurice Sendak

Max – Max Records
Mom – Catherine Keener
Boyfriend – Mark Ruffalo
KW – Lauren Ambrose
Douglas – Chris Cooper
Carol – James Gandolfini
Judith – Catherine O’Hara
Ira – Forest Whitaker

CLR Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Still: Where the Wild Things Are

The Birth of a Classic

Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book is simple, concise, and utterly unforgettable. Its language, spare and short (the book is ten sentences), has been memorized by millions of children who scrutinized it again and again, who begged for just one more recitation. “Let the wild rumpus start!” has become the archetype of chaotic, youthful glee for generations. The pictures—brilliantly colored trees replacing a child’s canopy bedposts, grass sprouting upon the carpeted floor, cavorting monsters with golden eyes and long sharp claws—have provoked the imagination for nearly fifty years. Spike Jonze’s film adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are may enjoy nearly that kind of longevity. With Sendak’s wholehearted approval, Jonze created a film that lovingly expands upon the original material and manages to craft an entirely new medium in which the imagination can run free.

Where the Wild Things Are delves deeply into the head of a nine-year-old boy, and the most comforting aspect of the film is that somewhere inside, we’re all nine years old. In the opening of the film, Max builds an igloo out of the leftover plowed snow across the street. Even in a frozen suburban landscape, Jonze manages to inject utter love and comfort into the tunneled structure. It’s exactly what every child yearns to create and hardly ever succeeds. When Max’s teenage sister’s friends destroy his masterpiece in an attempt at play, his despair is palpable. Poor Max yearns for attention, from his sister who’s too concerned with teenage social status, and from his busy, stressed out mother (Catherine Keener). When they don’t live up to his expectations, he retreats into a fantasy world.

In Sendak’s book, Max gets sent to bed without dinner after his unseen mother calls him a wild thing. In the film, Max throws a tantrum when his mother’s too busy with her boyfriend to pay attention to him. He runs out the door with the mother in hot pursuit and she loses him. Her concern and worry are a lovely touch, a bit of emotion adults can sympathize with. In Jonze’s version, Max climbs aboard a tiny sailboat and braves a wildly tossing ocean to the island of the Wild Things. Here he meets manic depressive Carole (James Gandolfini), weary and melancholy KW (Lauren Ambrose), petulant outcast Alexander (Paul Dano), loud, obxnoxious Judith (Catherine O’Hara), and a number of other lovingly rendered creatures.

Avid readers of the book will recognize each and every one; Jonze brought Sendak’s much-beloved artwork to roaring, gnashing life. In the film industry today the go-to solution to a group of giant, imaginary monsters would normally be CGI. Jonze rebelled, spending millions of dollars building enormous, elaborate costumes. After struggling with animatronics and realizing costumed actors couldn’t support the circuitry, the director opted to add animation only to the facial expressions in post-production. This allowed the filmmakers to place the actors’ expressions on the incredibly detailed, slightly terrifying creature faces. Audiences will recognize Gandolfini in the bipolar and destructive Carole; Ambrose in KW; Dano in sarcastic Alexander. Because they superimposed the actors’ expressions upon the gigantic creatures, there’s a stark, raw realism that wouldn’t have been possible with either CGI or animatronics. The creatures’ sheer enormity is alarming—Max could be crushed and broken at any moment. The jubilation with which they scream and play and their fierce, raw emotions will touch the heart and the mind.

In order to make a ten-sentence book into a full-length feature, Jonze and his co-writer, author Dave Eggers, gave each Wild Thing a unique and vibrant personality. Max crowns himself their king and they indulge in massive destruction—deforestation, a shockingly violent dirt-clod war, and finally collapse into a sleepy dogpile. Max’s real life and his fantasy are analogous in many ways—attention to visual detail is incredible. Max’s winter hat and tee shirt bear jagged points alluding to teeth; his crown is similarly pointy. When he ends up at the bottom of a dogpile (a genuinely terrifying moment that directly parallels the preceding collapse of his igloo) instead of finding himself dark, cold, and frightened, he feels snug and loved. The Wild Things’ relationship dynamics are strange and recognizable: they form an uneasy family in need of a leader. Max seems to be acquainted with and respect Carole and KW’s strained connection; it’s never specified, but perhaps he’s injecting his parents’ failed relationship into his fantasy. Finally he realizes he’s not up to the job of “keeping all the sadness out” and journeys back to his home. The film’s last shot is unforgettable. When his mother falls asleep at the table, he studies her exhausted face, and he sees her for the first time. His fantastic journey isn’t just a retreat from reality: it’s a step into adulthood.

Jonze cast an unknown child, Max Records, in the lead role, which was the perfect decision. The director managed to coax a spot-on performance out of a nine-year old: Records shows not a hint of artifice, and gears seem to be turning in his head each moment he’s onscreen. Keener likewise imbues such warmth and exhaustion into her performance that audiences will sympathize with her single-working-mom plight. Although studios balked at the film’s maturity, believing it might be too scary for children, it will appeal to kids and adults alike. Inside all of us there’s a child who yearns to break free, and the film’s beauty lies in its ability to portray unrefined human emotion and the vastness of the imagination. Expect Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are to ignite the minds of generations to come; spending 90 minutes inside a child’s mind has never felt so cathartic and enchanting.

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