We all like to remember our childhoods as simpler, happier times. Where the Wild Things Are is a moving reminder that the simplest things in life also made us sad, and even angry.
Director Spike Jonze has already directed two of the most visually imaginative films of the past decade, Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. With his adaptation (no pun intended) of Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book, Jonze presents another truly brilliant vision less focused on narrative and more concerned with transporting us into a new world. However, the fantasy does not keep the film from emotionally involving us in a story about triumphing over loneliness and heartache.
Max is a young child who lives with his older sister and single mother. He passes the time chasing the dog, playing in his “fort” made of sheets and simply being a child. Still, he is fragile. Events as deceptively insignificant as the destruction of his self-made igloo send Max into fits of sadness and rage. The loneliness of his own home soon becomes too much to take. Dressed in a white wolf costume, he runs away to an imaginary world of forests, deserts and wild creatures. These “wild things” (voiced by the likes of James Gandolfini, Catherine O’Hara, Paul Dano and Chris Cooper) come to embrace Max as their king. The pressure is on Max, though, as they expect the young boy to deliver them from sadness.
Set to great original music by Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, this film is powerful because of its brutal honesty depicting the troubles of childhood. The chaos of Max’s world is seen through the lens of a handheld camera that is sometimes disorienting, particularly during a dirtball fight between Max and the Wild Things that turns from playful to violent. Some of the film’s critics will likely say it is heavy-handed at times. Catherine Keener’s performance as Max’s mother might seem overdone to some viewers, but this is a story told from Max’s perspective. Jonze is concerned with the magic of his fantasy world, but the film is primarily concentrated on documenting what makes childhood fun and also what makes it sad.
While the movie is often dark and sometimes aggressive, I do not want to give the impression that this film is sheer drudgery. Max’s Oz is full of joy as he finds genuine friendships with the different creatures. He strongly relates with and quickly befriends the emotionally turbulent, nine-foot-tall Carol (Gandolfini of The Sopranos). Their friendship is the most touching companionship since Mr. Fredricksen and Russell in Up. Like the protagonists in Pixar’s latest, Carol and Max relate to each other on a deeper level than we are used to seeing in movies about children. Both Max and Carol experience rejection in their day-to-day lives, and what better way to forget their troubles than howl with all their souls or build a fort where only what they want to happen happens.
The Wild Things are brought to life convincingly with the combined use of giant puppets and computer-animated facial expressions. Jonze has a knack for taking the absurd and making it as realistic as possible, allowing us to focus on the characters’ psychologies. In 1999, he literally took us into John Malkovich’s head to study our voyeuristic nature and desire for escaping the entrapments of identity. Now Jonze uses the interaction of a young boy and these large creatures to explore the pros and cons of childhood idealism. The computer-generated facial expressions of the Wild Things are often heartbreaking, just as potent as any live-action performance would have been. Jonze, the technical wizard behind classic music videos such as Weezer’s “Buddy Holly”, seamlessly depicts this alternate reality with loving attention to the details, every teardrop and every tree hole rendered by Ira (Academy Award-winning Forest Whitaker).
The script was co-written by Jonze and Dave Eggers, who is best known for his hilarious memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Eggers’ involvement in the film is a bit difficult to believe because in one year, he was able to write both this truly fantastic film and one of the year’s biggest disappointments, Away We Go. What made the latter such a difficult film to watch was its condescending attitude towards it characters and, consequently, the audience. This stands as a stark contrast with the writing and character development in Where the Wild Things Are. The latter gives all the characters, though highly imaginative, such emotional depth. Each of the characters is deeply flawed, but all are lovable.
Even in its darkest moments, this movie has a great sense of energy, thanks to the youthfulness of Jonze’s direction and a magnificent performance by Max Records as the protagonist. The use of a handheld camera allows us to feel like we are right there alongside Max. We are not mere spectators, but are rather invited to join in this whimsical adventure. Starting with Max’s scribbling over the Warner Brothers’ logo, it is as if a child is showing us his coloring book that he has been waiting a long time to share. Down to its poetically understated ending, Where the Wild Things Are is a sometimes challenging but always compelling movie that takes us back to the emotional highs and low of being a kid.