A Useful Review: Where the Wild Things Are, 2009, dir. Spike Jonez

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Children’s movies today are generally crafted contradictions. On one hand, they’re often saturated with pop culture references aimed at the adult portion of the audience, resulting in innumerable moments that go over the heads of the target demographic. On the other hand, the elements of the film that are actually written for kids operate under the notion that children are incapable of processing or understanding art on their own; I’m not saying that each child secretly possesses the tools needed to analyze and critique the works of Shakespeare down to their basic elements, but treating children as though they don’t have creative and imaginative tendencies is incorrect. Kids are much smarter than we as adults tend to give them credit for; with rare exceptions*, most children’s entertainment practically refuses to acknowledge this.

Where the Wild Things Are is just such a departure from the norm. Spike Jonez has not so much adapted the classic children’s novelby Maurice Sendak as he has expanded it for the screen. This is, at its heart, the same story that has captivated readers for forty years and change, but yet entirely different. The book is stripped down and straightforward; the movie is no more convoluted, but it boasts a great deal more rumpuses as well as more thorough reflections of the nature of childhood and the fleeting fantasies that children concoct (and must ultimately abandon). Think of this film as the Extended Version of the book; it’s rich and detailed and chock full of elements missing from its source material, yet it keeps the heart and spirit of the book completely intact. Here, you get the additional scenes of rumpusing the book didn’t have, as well as more footage of our hero confronting his emotions, topped off with the truly scary prospect of being eaten by a large, angry monster that sounds like Tony Soprano.

We’re introduced to the aforementioned beast by way of Max (Max Records), a young lad with a raucous streak in him a mile wide; the film kicks off in a truly rattling fashion with Max chasing his family dog through the house, dressed in a wolf costume and barking like a lunatic. Of course, Max isn’t a real terror– at heart, he’s a good kid, but a good kid who acts out out of loneliness. Max is an outsider in his own home, which he shares with his older sister and his mother (Max’s parents, we quickly realize, are divorced); big sister is interested in hanging out with her friends, and mom (Catherine Keener) is tied up with her work. One night, Max goes too far over the line, and after getting riled up and biting his mother in front of company, he runs away from home and sails to a strange, far-off land inhabited by the Wild Things, giant and strange monsters that constitute a troubled pseudo-family of their very own. Naturally, they try to eat him at first; Max commands them to be still, and after a brief debate, they crown him their king. Much rumpusing follows.

From here, the two works part ways. Jonez’s film at this point becomes an examination of Max’s life and personal struggles, as he struggles to keep the Wild Things together as a big, furry family by building a fort with them and engaging in even more rumpusing with them. There’s an obvious parallel between Max’s situation as the Wild Things’ king (he’s more akin to a parent figure, which they apparently need much more than a king in the first place) and his mother’s, and the film is quietly peppered with a myriad of personal reflections of Max’s character, mirrored by the child-like Wild Things. They are afraid of being abandoned and separated; they worry that no one listens to them; they run out of ways to express themselves vocally and act out with violence. Max’s most prominent beastly foil, Carol (James Gandolfini), may well embody all of these traits, but in a brilliant move by Jonez, neither Carol nor any of the other Wild Things are specifically restricted to represent any one particular emotion or characteristic. In doing so, Jonez appears to be acknowledging that Max’s problems are universal ones that many children grow up dealing with, and as the Wild Things themselves are essentially top-heavy and furry (and feathered) children, it is only sensible that they have similarly shared aspects and emotions.

The clear distinctions drawn between Max’s personal experiences and the experiences of the Wild Things could very easily have been totally overwhelming in their heavy-handedness. When we see Carol rage at Max for failing to fulfill his many promises as their king, we immediately call to mind the frustrations that Max has with his own mother, and while the connection is there, it never feels forced or shoe-horned in. Jonez took a deft hand to how the world of the Wild Things mirrors Max’s, and never at any point does it feel like he is winking knowingly at the audience from behind his camera to acknowledge his own cleverness. Instead of injecting his omniscient eye into the proceedings, Jonez lets his characters do the talking.

And let’s face it– for many people, the characters (read: the monsters) are the movie’s real draw, and for good reason. After several years (or two decades, depending on how you look at it; development on a Where the Wild Things Are film started as early as the 80’s), a great deal of hemming and hawing, and a studio threat to have the entire film reshot, Jonez managed to secure both the extra funding and (most importantly) time that he needed to perfect his vision and bring the eponymous creatures to life– which may be a true understatement. The Wild Things here are a perfect marriage of Henson-engineered man-in-suit puppetry, CGI (which was used to perfect the beasts’ facial expressions), and incredible voice acting; they look totally alive in a way that wholly CGI creations never do, and the voices provided by the cast help complete that illusion. The personae of the Wild Things run the gammut; there’s the thoughtful Ira (Forest Whitaker), quick-witted Judith (Catherine O’Hara), insecure and attention-craving Alexander (Paul Dano), voice of reason Douglas (Christopher Cooper), and mother-figure KW (Lauren Ambrose). They’re a well-rounded if highly dysfunctional family; they show affection by bashing their fellow Wild Things with fallen tree trunks, or jumping on their bodies, and they all sleep together in a giant pile. The Wild Things are a testament to the power and effectiveness of practical effects, and the film is the latest in a recent rash of releases that emphasize the practical over the computer-animated (for example, the recent works of Guillermo del Toro).

The puppetry would be hollow, however, without the heart given to it by the cast who truly breathe life into these behemoths. While each actor is strong in their own right, giving individual personalities to each monster and making them into fully-realized characters, special mention has to be given to Gandolfini for his work as Carol. Carol is, in short, Max’s avatar in the fantasy world that is the monsters’ island– desperate to keep his family unit whole and intact, he is quick-tempered and frequently lashes out in anger (and even violence) toward those he loves in his attempts to bring them together. Gandolfini provides the appropriate amount of ferocity to Carol’s tantrums, and he imbues the monster with enormous vulnerability. Carol is scared, and he’s unable to express that fear other than by turning it into anger; he’s afraid of losing his loved ones, of pushing everyone away from him, and most of all, of the fact that he might just be as out of control as other Wild Things suggest he is. Gandolfini’s work here is note-perfect– you wouldn’t think it at first but his deep, New Jersey Italian mafia don rumblings actually make sense coming from a furry monster like Carol– and totally heart-breaking.

This review wouldn’t be complete without, of course, mention of the film’s protagonist, young Max. The difficulty in describing Records’ performance is that in everything Max (the character**) does, it’s hard to actually find the performance, because the boy doesn’t seem to be acting at all in each scene. Instead, he’s just being a kid. This is one of the rare moments when the concept of an actor’s performance simply dissolves and gives way to something that feels too genuine to be an illusion; it’s easy to overlook the fact that you’re watching a child perform when Records charges through the woods with his new-found monstrous family and friends.

Where the Wild Things Are is a true knockout in this Fall’s cinematic line-up; you may not see a movie this season that boasts greater imagination or creativity than the vision that Jonez has successfully brought to life here by plumbing the depths of a ten-sentence story and surfacing with a powerful exploration of the many facets of childhood. But more than that, it’s a film that is about that state of being coming to an end, and how children work through their issues in the process of growing up and moving on to the next stage of their young lives. As a result, I can’t in good conscience recommend Where the Wild Things Are to kids that are under the age of 7 or 8 (and 7 may even be pushing it), but for children that are of the right age, as well as their parents, this film will definitely resonate.

*Pixar comes to mind.

**The hero had to have the same name as the actor portraying him, didn’t he.

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One thought on “A Useful Review: Where the Wild Things Are, 2009, dir. Spike Jonez

  1. Pingback: Better Late Than Never: My Top 10 of 2009 « Andrew At The Cinema

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