Director: Spike Jonze
Starring: Max Records, Catherine Keener, Mark Ruffalo, Lauren Ambrose, Chris Cooper, Paul Dano, James Gandolfini, Catherine O' Hara, Forest Whitaker
Running Time: 104 min.
★★★★ (out of ★★★★)
There may be no bigger burden on a filmmaker than adapting a popular work of literature that's already ingrained in the public's conscience. That burden is doubled when that work happens to be a beloved children's classic passed from generation to generation over the past few decades. Everyone always has an opinion about what would make for a "faithful" adaptation. It's only natural those of all ages who grew up on Maurice Sendak's 1963 picture book Where The Wild Things Are would feel as protective of it as their own childhood and be perfectly content if it were never adapted into feature film form. That's why you could hear a collective sigh of relief when it was announced the the filmmaker attached to the project would be Spike Jonze, the quirky genius behind mind trips like Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. That relief soon turned to horror when it landed in theaters late last year with a thud and flopped commercially. The biggest complaint: How dare Jonze adapt this world famous children's book and have the nerve to not even aim it at kids?
Those who thought they wanted an inventive, mature interpretation of the material should have known the commitment that would entail as audience members and the sacrifices the studio would have to make to do that. One of those was not making a children's movie. That's not to say it's inappropriate for small kids or that they shouldn't watch it, but this wasn't necessarily made for them. Instead, Jonze was more interested in making a movie ABOUT childhood and the pain, sadness and confusion that can accompany it, especially for kids with overactive imaginations. More than that though, it's about the child in all of us that fades away as we enter a world full of responsibilities and burdens. If you're lucky enough, a small piece of that kid hangs on for the ride. That small piece is immortalized in Max's journey And what's most surprising is that Jonze saw something even darker in the material than what was on the page. He obviously felt a commitment that transcended mere adaptation, if not rendering the idea completely irrelevant altogether.
What the film has in common with the 10 sentences on which it's based on is that both lack a substantial plot. The opening minutes represent an excellent microcosm of what to expect throughout the movie as that feeling of warm childhood nostalgia is quickly replaced with isolation and melancholy in a reminder that growing up can be difficult...especially for a boy like Max (Max Records). With an absent father, a seemingly uncaring sister (Pepita Emmerichs) and a mother preoccupied with her career and new boyfriend, the 9-year-old lets his imagination run wild. After a temper tantrum he runs away and discovers the island of the wild things. That's a major deviation from the book that loyalists have complained about, even if I'm at a loss as to why. Changing the means by which he arrives in this new world neither adds nor detracts from the story and while I can appreciate complaints this method is less imaginative, I wouldn't want it attempted if the visual effects can't believably project it onscreen.
Upon his arrival Max is anointed the "king of all wild things" by this strange group of six large, furry creatures that have serious problems co-existing and have bought into the idea that he has magical powers that can help. His first order of business is to declare a wild rumpus but as tension mounts Max discovers that controlling and leading his new family isn't all fun and games. The whole thing is a strange trip where nothing much happens, yet everything happens. Most of the film consists of Max hanging out with these creatures and having a great time until cracks start to form in the relationship and the story really starts to enter darker territory. It turns from a wild rumpus into a cutthroat game of social politics not unlike something you'd expect to see on Survivor. They doubt his leadership and the cracks in the family's relationship can't be so easily fixed. His burgeoning friendship with the miscreant of the wild things, Carrol (brilliantly voiced by James Gandolfini), becomes most strained of all mainly because they're so much alike. But that's not say his interactions with the bickering Ira and Judith (Forest Whitaker and Catherine O' Hara), ignored Alexander (Paul Dano) and flighty K.W. (Lauren Ambrose) is all smooth sailing.
Above all else, this is really a film about a child's anger and how it manifests itself in the form of his imagination so it's understandable this wouldn't make for the most family friendly experience. But that's definitely in line with the themes of the book and the look and feel of this world created onscreen by Jonze is something we've never seen before, or if we have, it sure hasn't been very common this decade. There's a minimum of computer generated effects and the muppet-like monsters are all actually actors in suits provided by Jim Henson's Creature Shop. All I can say to that is "FINALLY." Finally, a filmmaker understands that CGI is not the way to go for this kind of a story and animatronics looks about a thousand times better and more believable. As if a side-by-side comparison of Frank Oz's Yoda in the Empire Strikes Back and that embarrassing looking computer generated thing that appeared in the prequels didn't prove that point already. CGI can be used well but most of the time it isn't and creates an effect similar to that of bad plastic surgery, where instead of improving the appearance of what's on screen, it just draws attention to the fact you're watching something that looks fake. The decision to take this approach made the film for me and the entire look and feel of the world recalls treasured family classics like The Neverending Story and the Henson-directed The Dark Crystal, both of which depend on the childlike thrill of imagination rather than bludgeoning viewers with special effects, although the level of technical craft is obviously much higher here.
The movie's magical trailer hinted at that and this is one of those rare cases where the final product not only lives up to the expectations of those 2 minutes, but actually exceeds them. Lance Accord's cinematography and Karen O's score just enhance the movie's trippy, other-worldly atmosphere with the only small complaint on the musical side being the absence of Arcade Fire's "Wake Up," if only because it was employed so brilliantly in the trailer that in my mind it almost already seemed like an important part of the film. The visuals or music never overwhelm, allowing the great performances plenty breathing room. The best belongs to a revelatory Max Records as young Max who perfectly conveys the many emotional shifts required for the moody protagonist. Since he escapes to the island of the wild things fairly early into the picture, Catherine Keener is limited in her screen time but still brings so much to the role of a mother who loves her son but feels overwhelmed by her life and his behavior. The wild things are just as fully realized by the actors under the suits, especially Gandolfini, who at times does seem to incorporate a little of Tony Soprano (or at least his short fuse) into the sensitive humanity of Max's new best friend, Carrol.
Jonze deserves credit for sticking by his vision, as does Warner Bros. for having the guts to release a film that didn't dumb Sendak's ideas down to make a more family friendly product. While that would have probably resulted in much bigger bank at the box office, it would do so at the expense of preserving the integrity of the material. Max finds that he can't escape the problems of growing up through his imagination and the world and creatures he creates in his own head can't make the confusion go away. Only he can. The film may be dark but it isn't depressing as proven by the wordless final scene that's just about as perfect an encapsulation of Sendak's creation as could possibly be. Will kids enjoy it? Maybe, but as far as I'm concerned that issue is irrelevant. Where The Wild Things Are is is really for adults who remember what it's like to be a kid and haven't lost the ability to see and appreciate the world through their eyes.