Where the Wild Things Are
Directed by Spike Jonze. Voices by James Gandolfini, Lauren Ambrose, Paul Dano, Catherine O’Hara, Chris Cooper, Forest Whitaker. Starring Max Records, Catherine Keener, Mark Ruffalo, Pepita Emmerichs, Steve Mouzakis. (2009, PG, 94 min.)
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Oct. 16, 2009
“Be still!” shouts 10-year-old Max to the half-dozen Wild Things circling him with a hunger for small child à la mode. “Be still!” he shouts, and it works, both to stop the Wild Things in their tracks and as an occasional directive for the film itself, which doesn’t shy from long stretches of stillness, of quiet. That’s just one of the many moods so easily evinced by this freewheeling but tonally and aesthetically true adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s 1963 children’s book. Jonze, in collaboration with co-screenwriter Dave Eggers, seems to have tapped every primal feeling along the spectrum – joy, grief, rage, a relish for mayhem – and put it onscreen for our viewing pleasure. And a pleasure it is – the rare children’s film that isn’t coded for adults or made corny and flip for kids. Some reviewers will want to put quotes around the word when talking about Where the Wild Things Are’s target audience – you know, a “children’s” film – in part because the film contains some especially nuanced ideas and images, but mostly because Jonze has a history of making hip, somewhat sardonic films (Adaptation, Being John Malkovich). It’s a bit bewildering, at least in theory, to take him at his word here, but Where the Wild Things Are is a sincere, open-hearted film, and you’re best off greeting it in the same fashion. Eggers and Jonze expand upon the original story, which ran a mere 41 lines, to give its boy hero Max (Records) a single mom (Keener) and a grade-school science teacher (Mouzakis) who casually announces to a pop-eyed Max that the sun is dying, apparently ignorant of the way little kids fixate on – and can be terrorized by – the limitless but always incomplete information dumped on them. It’s a confusing time for Max, and he’s at that age that marks the waning days of absolute ownership of his mother’s body and mind. Mom is distracted – the way Max burrows under her desk and pulls at the pantyhose on her foot says in one small gesture everything you need to know about the complicated issues of intimacy and tugs for attention, for dominance, that Max is wrestling with, whether he knows it or not. So Max acts out – even worse, in front of Mom’s new boyfriend (Ruffalo) – and after a fearsome fight with his mother, he takes off running … and keeps running, until his neighborhood melts away and a way to a new world is found. That's where he meets the Wild Things, and they are marvelous. Working with Jim Henson’s Creature Shop and adapting quite literally Sendak’s original etchings, Jonze has put to film what generations of children have only dreamed about: the nearness and dearness of Sendak’s woolly beasts. Max gravitates to a similarly wayward spirit named Carol (voiced by Gandolfini), a furred giant with anger issues and a nose that looks rawed by whiskey. Not that there’s any whiskey in this land, which seems set perpetually at sunrise or sunset: Only the stuff of a little boy’s imagination exists here, things such as forts and dirt clod fights and cuddling. It’s a place where aggression and affection can live peaceably; one of the many delights of the film is in how physical it is (somebody is always pummeling somebody else and then following the beating with a bruising bear hug). There are a dozen more delights to be easily rattled off, from Karen O. and Carter Burwell’s score and the superb voicework to Records’ fearless performance and Jonze and Eggers' deceptively rich script, which lifts bits and pieces from its prologue and reintroduces them later in an astute illustration of how a child plucks truths from his life and weaves them into his fiction. There are minor grievances with the film, all technical – Max’s flight from home is underlit to the point of near-obscurity, and the hand-held camera is jittery to distraction – but they frankly feel inconsequential when put next to the film’s overall effect. I don't want to oversell the thing. It is, quite simply, something very special indeed.