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 V.18 No.42 | October 15 - 21, 2009 

Film Review

Where the Wild Things Are

Fearless fantasy captures the imagination as well as the emotion of being a child

Pokémon has changed a lot in the last decade.
Pokémon has changed a lot in the last decade.

Where the Wild Things Are

Directed by Spike Jonze

Cast: Max Records, Catherine Keener, James Gandolfini

Where the Wild Things Are is the first kid-oriented film to come out of Hollywood in a great while that doesn’t begin with a voice-over narration. That might not seem like a very big deal, but I assure you it is. Almost every film aimed anywhere under the 18-to-49 demographic begins with a voice-over explaining the entire upcoming situation to kids. Where the Wild Things Are doesn’t. It just starts.

Finally, a film that understands the difference between talking to kids and talking down to kids.

Maurice Sendak’s much-beloved, multi-award-winning children’s book couldn’t have been the easiest inspiration for a feature film. Look at the gap between book publication and movie release (1963/2009). Ponder the contentious history of the film itself. (Distributor Warner Brothers sat on the film for a year hemming and hawing over what to do with it and even considered reshooting the entire project.) Not only is it daunting tackling a time-honored classic plucked from just about everybody’s childhood bookshelf, but the 10 whole sentences that comprise Sendak’s picture book don’t provide all that much material for big screen adaptation.

Elementary school, for one, would be a better place with more monsters.
Elementary school, for one, would be a better place with more monsters.

Fortunately, the right names got attached to this one. The director is music-video-guru-turned-indie-sensation Spike Jonze, whose singular cinematic visions (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation.) have earned him some serious film industry cachet. To write the screenplay, Jonze teamed up with Pulitzer Prize-nominated author Dave Eggers (A Staggering Work of Heartbreaking Genius, You Shall Know Our Velocity!). Rather than inflate Mr. Sendak’s phantasmagorical picture book with unnecessary backstory and unconnected subplot, the duo have stuck as closely to the original, stream-of-consciousness narrative as possible.

As in the book, our protagonist is Max (intuitive newcomer Max Records). Max is an underaged hellraiser who dresses in a wolf costume and terrorizes his household. Expanding slightly on Sendak’s book, we find that Max’s mom (Catherine Keener) is a single woman. (By divorce or widowhood? The film doesn’t say.) She’s trying to date (Mark Ruffalo, in a brief cameo), but it isn’t easy with imaginative, emotional, utterly uncontrollable Max running around. Sent to bed without his supper after one particularly ill-timed tantrum, Max runs away from home. Sailing away on a tiny boat, Max ends up on an island inhabited by towering, hairy monsters. Childlike themselves, these monsters would rather smash things than think through the consequences. Angry little Max finds a powerful kinship with these raging creatures of the Id and is soon declared King of All Wild Things.

That the amazing monster costumes come courtesy of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop is no surprise. Jumping, leaping and tumbling across the landscape, they feel less like delicate “special effects” and more like giant, fuzzy actors. With a fair amount of CGI manipulation to enhance their facial expressions, these Big Bird-esque creatures come to magnificent life, each distinct in its own personality. (Take a glance at the book afterward—they’re exact reproductions of Sendak’s drawings.) It doesn’t hurt that a fine troupe of vocal talents are on hand to lend their voices as well (James Gandolfini, Paul Dano, Catherine O’Hara, Forest Whitaker, Chris Cooper, Lauren Ambrose).

The filmmakers stick doggedly to Sendak’s tone—both visually and psychologically. Using mostly handheld cameras, the stark backdrop of coastal Australia and some incredible, Andy Goldsworthy-inspired set pieces, the film generates an inescapable otherworldly quality. Even as the opening credits roll (defaced in crayon-like scrawl marks courtesy of Max), you’ll realize this isn’t the sort of candy-coated fairy tale that’s so often peddled to kids these days. Thematically, Sendak was exploring the issue of childhood anger, and he didn’t moralize against it. He simply treated it as a phase that all children go through while trying to understanding their emotions—the bad ones as well as the good. Jonze’s film doesn’t begin with a simpleminded narration, and it doesn’t end with a clear-cut moral, either. Almost any other filmmaker would have tied this up in a nice little bow with a message about how families stick together and love each other unconditionally. But Where the Wild Things Are doesn’t say that. Instead, it honestly admits that families are messy, emotional, confusing entities that require constant work and are rarely anything close to perfect.

Whether Where the Wild Things Are is ultimately embraced by young children or thirtysomething hipsters who just want to get in touch with their inner prepubescent remains to be seen. It’s dark and melancholy and occasionally a tad violent (although, given the tone, “a tad rough and tumble” might be a better phrase). Since the high point of the film is a full-fledged dirt-clod fight (something I’ve always viewed as a sacred institution of childhood), I’m willing to believe the filmmakers are on the right course and have arrived at a true classic of the family film genre. It may take a while for this film to get its due (The Wizard of Oz was a bomb when it came out), but it’s a bold, brilliant, admirably artistic take on a world we all visited at one time or another in our childhood dreams. Thanks for the return trip, folks.


Where the Wild Things Are

Filmmaker Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich) and writer Dave Eggers (A Staggering Work of Heartbreaking Genius) expand on the emotional, imaginative tone of Maurice Sendak's much-beloved kiddie classic without inflating the phantasmagorical picture book with unnecessary backstory and unconnected subplot. 102 minutes PG.

 
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