Where the Wild Things Are (Review)

Spike Jonze delivers a melancholy adaptation of a classic children’s book

Oct 14, 2009 at 2:06 pm

To say that Spike Jonze’s adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are sometimes plays like a wrenchingly melancholy, Bergman-esque domestic drama with furry creatures — it’s even set in a locale like Ingmar Bergman’s beloved Faro Island — isn’t much help to people who want to know if children will like it.

The answer to that is, “Got me.” It’s not much like current children’s movies. There are no cutesy, funny pop-culture references a la Shrek, and it’s not about delivering an uplifting life lesson on the order of Up!. It’s also basically not an animated film — the creatures are actors in vividly expressive Jim Henson Creature Shop-designed costumes, though the facial movements are computer-generated. All I can say is that it’s a very interesting movie for adults in the way it uses childhood fantasy to explore issues of loneliness, sadness, alienation and forgiveness.

Jonze has said in published articles that The Black Stallion and E.T. inspired him. I might bring up another film that used Jim Henson creatures but had mature themes: the adult-oriented Dreamchild, based on a Dennis Potter script about the ways Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland haunted the elderly woman who inspired it as a child.

Adapted from a 1963 picture book — with just nine full sentences of text — that captivated children with its scary but somehow approachable, even loveable, monsters, Where the Wild Things Are obviously had to be expanded for a film. In the book, an emotional boy named Max works through his anger at his family by conjuring a world of wild things that he successfully negotiates. He then is able to have dinner, having learned to calm down.

If Wild Things the story is Max-centric, Jonze and co-screenwriter Dave Eggers have put much more emphasis on the seven large creatures who live on the fantasy island (filmed in Australia) to which an angry Max escapes.

But that emphasis isn’t plot-driven — it’s psyche-driven as they work through their relationships with one another and their anxieties about the rewards of life. Their interaction with Max is anecdotal and incidental, without a cumulative build or major revelation. They do some action-oriented stuff — tear up houses, punch holes in trees, jump on each other — but they also talk a lot.

As brought to life on screen, these creatures are wonderful to look at, each with distinct faces, bodies and personalities. They aren’t cuddly, although the friendly KW (voiced by Lauren Ambrose) has a surprising sensuality. In one striking scene, just her face occupies half of the screen as she lies on the ground talking to Max.

James Gandolfini voices Carol, who seems to love KW and whose fretting over her refusal to commit is what makes this a domestic drama. As one might expect from Tony Soprano, he is a ticking time bomb of latent aggression and hostility. But he’s also conflicted about it. The others have personalities that range from aggressive kvetching (Judith, voiced by an Elaine May-ish Catherine O’Hara) to the depressive shyness and outright sorrow of the goat-like Alexander (Paul Dano) and the bull (Michael Berry Jr.).

There is an existentialist nature to all this.

Max (12-year-old Max Records, who has the mischievous smile of the Culkin kids) ingratiates himself with the wild things by claiming to be their king. They give him a crown, but they also question his powers to make their isolated life better. It’s hard not to read a religious dimension — a doubting of God — into the metaphoric goings-on.

The filmmaking is as interesting as the approach to the narrative. Jonze, whose previous movies were Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, brings an unrepentant indie sensibility to Wild Things. Cinematographer Lance Acord, who offers a grungy, naturalistic, indie sensibility for the opening scenes of Max at home, helps him here. The color palette is artless, even dark, as if whatever light is available is enough.

As the boy runs around the house in his wolf costume, being chased by the family dog, he’s followed by a hand-held camera that suddenly freezes long enough for the title, which looks as if it’s been scrawled with chalk. Then it’s on to more scenes of the lonely Max at play in the snow outside. Pay attention, because what happens here has a corollary on the island. Catherine Keener registers well in her few scenes as his mom.

Also aiding this sensibility is the drifting, haunting Indie Rock score by Karen O., of the band Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Carter Burwell. Some instrumental passages are Satie-like, hardly kid’s stuff. And the Rock songs give Wild Things a Juno feel — Karen O.’s prominently featured song “Hideaway” is reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix’s achingly transcendent “May This Be Love (Waterfall).”

The biggest surprise of Wild Things is that Max’s escape to the island isn’t marked by a bold shift in filmmaking technique or score, or a startling “dream sequence” to herald the arrival of Hollywood production values. In that way, this is a far different work from, say, The Wizard of Oz.

He runs down a dark suburban street and into a sailboat across the ocean — the water highlighting the fluidity of Jonze’s vision, that the world of wild things is also the world of Max and the world of us. A good world? Maybe, maybe not — but you’re never too young, or too old, to learn how to traverse it. Grade: B

Opens Oct. 16. Check out theaters and show times, see more photos from the film and get theater details here.