In the classic children’s book “Where the Wild Things Are,” by Maurice Sendak, each line of writing and beautiful illustration elicits a feeling of creativity and imagination, hence why the book is so memorable and so beloved for over 45 years. Many people are familiar with the character Max and his wild hijinks with a band of monsters that he leads on a faraway island after sailing away from his home. With only 10 sentences in the entire book to work with, writer/director Spike Jonze has unbelievably managed to flesh out an entire full length film that is both a work of art and an entertaining, memorable experience for both adults and children.
It all begins with a serene scene of a little boy, named Max, building an igloo in his yard on a snowy day. Max cannot find a playmate, and his fruitless attempts at getting his sister, Claire, to join in show us the beginning of why he acts out and goes wild. The tune that plays in the background is simultaneously comforting and odd. With the inherent oddness of the story of a little boy romping around with monsters [who would like to eat him], this soundtrack fits right in. With all original music by Karen O (of the band the Yeah Yeah Yeahs), the soundtrack is a richly-composed addition to the film that simultaneously digs deep and musically captures the wildness of a monster and the excitement of a child.
The reason Max leaves his home and family and runs away is expanded upon in the film without getting caught up in the minutiae of story. From the handheld camera work in scenes, to the perspective shots, the film gives us a picture from a child’s point of view. Max acts up, craving attention and bites his mother. He then runs away fully dressed in his wolf costume. He captains his small boat to an unknown island where he then meets the monsters.
Max is stoically played by newcomer Max Records, who shows incredible promise and sincerity in this role. Of course, the monsters are the centerpiece of this film and they are brought to us in a way that is truly brilliant. Originally intended to be all animatronics, the monsters are puppets, but have had their facial expressions computer animated. The effect is stunning. Although they are giant puppets, standing in a forest with a little boy, it does not come across absurd or obtrusive, but instead it is magical.
The monsters all have distinctive personalities and the voice talent behind them brings that to light. James Gandolfini, who is widely known for his role as Tony Soprano in the series “The Sopranos,” voices the monster Carol. The nasal, but powerful voice and heavy breathing will not bring you back to the role of Soprano, but instead fit like a glove into this new monstrous personality. Carol, along with the other monsters Ira (voiced by Forest Whitaker), Judith (voiced by Catherine O’ Hara), Douglas, Alexander, and K.W., all have their own personalities that are easily recognizable – the downer, the one who looks for attention, the one with the anger problem, etc. This is not to say that the themes do not get deeply profound; the fears of children, the nature of groups to clash, the innate need to go wild sometimes. The deep themes do not detract from the fun and the ease of the story for children, but make the film have another level to it which adults will appreciate.
The film took many years to make and you can see that in the final product. There is a temptation to gush about this film in every way possible; the cinematography, casting, art direction, music, and lighting are superb and bring something to the table in this film. The fantastic scenes in which Max captains his tiny boat to and from the mysterious island of monsters, are beautiful night scenes of water raging all around him, and look like pages from a book come to life.
Essentially what Jonze manages to do is bring all the imagination and creativity that readers get from the book and expand it many times to fit the format of film.
It is refreshing to see a film which is not entirely computer generated and relying on a plot which shoves a moral lesson down our throats. “Where the Wild Things Are” will stick in your memory well into the future, just as the children’s book did for many into their adulthood. The film is one wild ride, and a welcomed perspective from a talented director, on a long journey back to our childhood.
While it conceivably addresses many childhood dilemmas, like the purest notions of loneliness and sadness, and does so a manner wholeheartedly charming, one can’t help but spend the entire film waiting for something more vivid – more visually unique.
Sure, the creatures are certainly inhuman – rather resembling giant plush toys, but the world is so incredibly ordinary. Their distant island, devoid of any sapien life, consists of grassy fields, dunes, cliffs and a beach – four locations so mundane that they hardly warrant the coveted world of a children’s tale.
A trek into the recesses of a child’s imagination should warrant much more than that. Where are the growing mushrooms of Wonderland or the Nevertree a la “Peter Pan”?
Even the more contemporary and darkly adult “Pan’s Labyrinth” had a sense of situational autonomy.
Instead, the journey into Max’s (Max Records) heart reveals an adorably dangerous allegory of his own familial circumstances.
But maybe that’s the point.
This is a child who feels so strongly that perhaps he needed this connection to the real world, where a large and cuddly version of his sister, KW, does not leave him and chooses him as her companion – where Carol, a particularly temperamental member of their society with an eerie character resemblance to Max, helps him learn the error of his ways.
Even so, for all its spectacular attributes – and there were many – even a wholeheartedly enjoyable film like “Where the Wild Things Are” could have used the one thing that we once had in abundance but seemingly lose forever – a quality, when used correctly, can turn the staunchest adult into a giggling youth: a little magic.
– Olga Privman