Where the Wild Things Are (2009): United States – directed by Spike Jonze
Rated PG by the MPAA – contains action violence and some mature themes
Max is a young boy, perhaps nine or ten years old. He lives in a fairly normal neighborhood with his older sister and mom. He has an active imagination, but sometimes that’s all he’s got going for him. Things are occasionally rough at home, with a sister who would rather be with friends and a mom who needs to work to pay the bills.
One day, after a particularly traumatic incident, Max, feeling horrible and misunderstood, runs off down the street in his monster costume. The little ears and tail flap alongside him as he runs, turning toward the woods, and comes to a boat sitting at the water’s edge. He climbs in and sets sail, not knowing exactly where he’ll end up. A storm hits, but he spots some land and heads toward it. Avoiding the rocks and surf he pulls the boat onto the beach and starts heading inland.
Pretty soon he’s deep in the forest and it’s clear he’s not alone. Upon discovering that there are Wild Things in the woods, Max’s innate spunkiness and imagination work together to not only prevent him from being eaten, but also to be crowned king of the island.
Spike Jonze has been crafting this film for years. With Maurice Sendak’s (the author of the original children’s book) blessing to go along with his producer credit, Jonze waded through a sometimes troubled production to create a real gem. He has taken the short book and adapted it successfully, fleshing out a longer story that remains true to Sendak’s original spirit. This is not an easy task, but thanks to some great support Jonze pulls it off wonderfully.
The cast, to begin with, is great. Catherine Keener is sympathetic as Max’s mom, while the voice actors for the Wild Things all blend perfectly into their roles. It’s hard to tell, without prior knowledge, that actors such as James Gandolfini, Paul Dano, and Chris Cooper inhabit the voices of the Wild Things. Perhaps the hardest task, though, went to Max Records. As Max he is forced to display great range, from a carefree, violent enjoyment of life to a troubled and worried boy. Every step of the way he is convincing and effective.
Not only is the acting exactly what was needed for the film, but the rest of the pieces fit perfectly together as well. The soundtrack, while perhaps leaning ever-so-slightly to the independent quirky soundtrack style that’s popular these days, has a coherent theme not found in many movies. The jungle beats and howls seem to come from the events happening on screen.
What impressed me most was the visual aesthetic. It is very stylish, as one would expect from Jonze (whose previous works, including Adaptation and Being John Malkovich, have been strictly adult-oriented.) It varies from jerky handheld shots, when necessary, to utterly peaceful and serene moments. I love these moments the best, as the silhouettes created by Max and the Wild Things are simply astounding. The great thing about the directing, though, is that it always adds to the film, flowing with the mood as it changes. When Max and the Wild Things are beating each other up out of joy the camera is jumpy. When they’re sharing a quiet walk down the beach the camera stays calm.
What sets Where the Wild Things Are apart from most other movies is that it wrestles with some complex ideas. Max is a wild kid, to say the least, but it’s only through experiencing life with other Wild Things that he comes to better understand himself. The confusion he feels in trying to be a good kid comes across vividly. Things seem to be going so well for his little kingdom, but it can all fall apart at any moment. It reminded me of days past, playing with friends or siblings. One moment everyone’s enjoying the violence and mayhem, but suddenly someone gets hurt and the party’s over. This is a hard lesson for Max to learn.
As you might have guessed by now, I quite liked this movie. It’s brilliantly made and also remains true to the spirit of Sendak’s book. It’s hard for a kid to grow up and the movie expresses this accurately. If you’re a fan of the book I have a feeling you will greatly enjoy the movie. At the same time, if you just love those moments when you let your imagination run wild, do yourself a favor and watch this film.