Where The Wild Things Are: A Magical, 4-Star Wild Rumpus
Max, the hero of Where The Wild Things Are, is having fun early in the film in a snowball fight. It’s a freewheeling, wonderful action scene, where his sister’s friends attempt to pelt him back as hard as they can, and Max giggles with glee– this is what winter fun is about as a child. Then, one of his sister’s friends caves in his snowbase where he was hiding, and on a dime, Max is terrified, cold, and betrayed. What Spike Jonze gets about childhood throughout the film, and what makes Where The Wild Things Are such a beautiful, melancholy experience, is that while we remember it as this magical carefree time, the opposite is true– children care more strongly than we jaded adults do. We trust completely, we love completely, we give ourselves over to our feelings and our experiences with total abandon, and thus our strong emotions switch quickly. My emotions weren’t switching while watching the film– I was enraptured the entire time.
The story, adapted from a book which contains only ten sentences, centers in on Max (Max Records), a kid who feels his sister and mom don’t pay him enough attention, and after a bratty confrontation with his mom where he bites her, he runs away, hops on a boat, and sails to the land of the Wild Things. He meets Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini), the leader of the pack, an impulsive frustrated monster. Along with him are his friends, Ira (Forest Whitaker), Judith (Catherine O’Hara), Alexander (Paul Dano), Douglas (Chris Cooper), and the silent Bull. Finally, there’s K.W. (Lauren Ambrose), a loner who takes long ventures out to meet other creatures, which angers Carol, who is focused on trying to keep the whole group together as best friends forever.
Roger Ebert said in his review of The Polar Express, “”The Polar Express” has the quality of a lot of lasting children’s entertainment: It’s a little creepy. Not creepy in an unpleasant way, but in that sneaky, teasing way that lets you know eerie things could happen. There’s a deeper, shivery tone…a world of its own, like “The Wizard of Oz” or “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” in which the wise child does not feel too complacent.” Spike Jonze achieves the exact same effect here. When Max first arrives, the monsters threaten to eat him. We as trained audience members feel this is an empty threat– after all, little boys don’t die in movies like this. A few minutes later, we see a pile of bones, unmistakably made up of their previous leaders who displeased them. Complacency is immediately tossed out the window. These monsters aren’t just nice friends, they’re real threats who could turn on Max if things go awry. The label of “wild thing” isn’t handled with kiddie gloves.
Yet the film never loses its realistic depiction of childishness. Max, like real children, can be a brat if he feels neglected or scorned. He bites his mother and stomps around– it’d be easy to judge this character at this point in the film if we totally lost the ability to look back at our own younger days, to the stories our parents told us about things we did as children that we would be horrified to see nowadays. When he encounters the monsters, all he wants to do with them are the same things he would do at home– run around, jump, dig holes, build makeshift “homes” outdoors. He wants everyone to sleep together in a real pile, because let’s be honest, if you saw a bunch of big fuzzy monsters like that, you’d darn sure want to hug them. The monsters exhibit this childishness as well. Carol is temperamental, Judith is pouty and doubtful, Ira is a pushover, Alexander seeks attention, and Douglas is trustworthy and reliable. When Carol introduces Max to Douglas and says, “I count on him for everything,” there was a simple beauty and childish honesty to the delivery that made my eyes well up.
Perhaps I’m the wrong person to review this, since I found the book so perfect as a kid, so there’s a sense of sentimentality that I immediately place on the material. However, I think this is the rare movie that should fully please fans of the book. Usually, fans of a book whine about things left out of the film adaptation, and I write a review insisting that we must remove our devotion to the core material’s particulars in order to see if the movie captured the essence of the book the best way that it could– simply put, is it a good movie, book be damned? Here is the exact opposite scenario: a book has had tons of material added to its ten-sentence story, and I think that every single bit added captures the essence flawlessly. The script, by Jonze and Dave Eggers, can also be interpreted to give the monsters various symbolic meanings and interpretations, though for me such additional scholarly endeavors are unnecessary; the characters stand on their own without any added symbolism.
Jonze’s effects work (a combination of real puppet bodies and some CGI face work) is a revelation in a time when CGI is thrown haphazardly around– here is a director who wanted the child actor to be able to touch, hug, and interact with real wild things, and the decision absolutely paid off. Max Records is a natural, lacking the put-on precociousness most child actors have. The production design and cinematography are easily among the best of the year. This is simply one of those films where every element is combined with such unity of vision that it does more than create a new world… it creates a new reality. There’s not a moment of the film that fails to ring true. And if when Max sets out to leave the Land of the Wild Things, you don’t tear up at his goodbyes with his magical wild friends, you need to thaw out your ice-cold heart. Instead of manipulating your emotions, this fantasy earns them. This is one of the best movies of the year.