Movie Review: Where the Wild Things Are
In so many ways, Max is a modern child. His father is gone. His older sister has outgrown him. His mother, who works late to support the household, is dating a stranger. His teachers are slowly introducing him to the realities of an adult life, offering lessons on tsunamis and supernovas. He has no friends with whom to share his frustrations or figure out his feelings, some combination of betrayal or anger or loneliness. Yet his imagination is strong and provides him with a shelter from the storms of his everyday existence. But when, one evening, his emotions boil over and he runs from his home in a rage, he crosses some imaginary boarder into the realm of the Wild Things.
With that in mind, Where the Wild Things Are isn’t so much a movie for children as it is a movie about children, awash in a complicated sea of emotions that one can only associate with childhood long after becoming an adult. Director Spike Jonze and writer Dave Eggers have crafted an incredibly sophisticated, multi-layered and strangely subversive adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s novel by replicating all the wonder and imagination, all the volatile sadness and emotional uncertainty, of being an innocent kid in a grown-up’s world. The pair seems to grasp that in lacking the vocabulary to fully explain or understand their most complex feelings, children turn inward, drifting into imaginary worlds to make sense of the inexplicable. But all too often, their imaginings are subject to the limits of their own experience, and all the painted vistas and pretended friendships are just as broken and unknowable as the lives they were trying to escape.
When Max crosses an ocean and ends up in the midst of the Wild Things, he quickly proclaims himself the king of this odd assortment of gentle-hearted behemoths. Immediately, Max forms a bond with Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini with both a quiet tenderness and boiling anger). He’s trying to figure out his feelings for K.W. (voiced by Lauren Ambrose), an approximation of Max’s sister in her desire to break away from the pack, away from the people who love and need her the most. Carol’s emotions are unsteady to say the least, prone to abrupt, violent outbursts, but much like Max himself, there’s a great melancholy about the character – the very same melancholy that hangs above almost every sequence of the film. They are characters confused, wanting to love and be loved, but incapable of adapting to life’s inevitable changes.
The other Wild Things are all individually representative of Max’s feelings or emotions. Judith (Catherine O’Hara), the moodiest of the Wild Things, holds a mirror up to Max’s own indignation, saying in one pivotal sequence, “You don’t get to yell at me when I get mad! It’s your job to understand, to make us feel better,” a universal frustration that we’ve all shared as children. Douglas (Chris Cooper) represents Max’s limited sense of reason while Alexander (Paul Dano) echoes his sense of invisibility. Ira (Forest Whitaker) highlights Max’s desire to make peace, to buffer the conflicts between others and within himself.
But what makes the film work – either because or in spite of its artful, indie spirit – is that each of the creatures feel like actual characters and not simply some collection of walking, talking metaphors. They have their own personalities and arcs, and while the group’s conflicts revolve around the construction of a massive, imaginary fort – as opposed to some epic, Disney-esque adventure – they each get their moment to shine. This is in no small part due to the jaw-dropping effects work required to bring them to life, from the full-scale, beautifully-designed suits to the CG used to animate their facial expressions. WTWTA may mark the most aesthetically dynamic integration of practical and digital effects we’ve seen in quite some time, and if you feel yourself wanting to reach out and give Carol a hug, you’d hardly be alone.
Jonze’s direction is appropriately matter-of-fact, never romanticizing the world of the Wild Things. In fact, by virtue of setting most of the film in a dense forest, the monsters are generally the only visual element of the film that feels particularly fantastic. Yes, there’s a desert landscape and the fort itself is impressively grand in its design, but everything here feels like an extension of the natural world. No CG kingdoms anywhere in sight. And Jonze’s decision to film the world with a minimized sense of wonder, focusing instead on the size of things relative to Max – the monsters pose a constant threat of accidental harm – ultimately keeps the focus on Max and his relationships.
Overall, Where the Wild Things Are is a tremendously moving and intelligent film, so much so that it risks alienating audiences who are expecting a more typical adventure. There is humor here, and joy, and amazement, but for every beat of whimsy, there’s one of sadness or confusion. So it’ll be up to the age and maturity of the kids in the audience whether they’ll ultimately “get” all of what the film is aiming at. That said, if you take the film for what it is, you’ll discover a complex and extraordinary accomplishment, as moving as it is odd. A true Wild Thing in itself.