Movie Review: Where the Wild Things Are
By Matthew Huntley
October 20, 2009

I'm sure the Rams will win a football game again some time.

As kids, we all liked to pretend. It was our way of channeling the bottomless energy and curiosity that came with being young. It also gave us a higher purpose by making us the central figure in the world we created.

And yet, at the end of the day, we always returned home to our parents. No matter how much they drove us crazy, we missed them, even though they didn't always understand us. Because adults were once kids themselves, you'd think they'd be more sensitive to kids expressing anger, fear and uncertainty. But I guess that's one of the prices of growing older — you forget what it was like to be young.

This was one of the many themes running through Maurice Sendak's beloved book, Where The Wild Things Are, which has been adapted into a movie by Spike Jonze, the gifted director behind Being John Malkovich and Adaptation (and with those two movies in mind, he seems like the perfect choice).

The book is about an unruly little boy who defies his mother and gets sent to bed without supper. In his room, he walks into his closet, imagines himself a boat, and then sails across the sea to the Land of the Wild Things, which is populated by monsters, birds, and goats, and full of bountiful forests, deserts and no other humans, especially adults. This is the type of place they wouldn't understand.

Jonze's film essentially follows the same arc as the book, but it adds more. Young Max (Max Records) is an imaginative but turbulent little boy who disrupts his mother's date, bites her on the shoulder and runs away from home. He's out of control and likes to wrestle the family dog and dress in a wolf's costume (a metaphor for his ferocious nature). He doesn't have many friends and he's ignored by his older sister. It's no wonder he dreams up the Land of the Wild Things, where only the things he wants to happen, happen. He befriends troll-looking monsters like Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini) and KW (Lauren Ambrose), and they all jump, wrestle, howl, build forts and have mud ball fights together. Max convinces them he's their king and has great powers. But, as Max learns, it's not wonderful all the time.

Watching this film, I was reminded of The Wizard of Oz, whose theme of "There's no place like home" is very present here. But there are other, deeper meanings at work, including kids not fully understanding adult problems; friendship; honesty; love; forgiveness; and learning about yourself by observing others.

What helps Jonze and his fellow filmmakers bring these ideas to life are the convincing creatures, who are a combination of CGI and Jim Henson's Muppets. Their size and tangibility make us believe they're really there, and so their symbolism is more deeply felt. Jonze also places them in real locations (if this film has any green screens, they're not easy to spot).

I'm glad they decided to utilize practical effects instead of the full-on CGI. The monsters are living, breathing and real. Their authenticity reminded me of how kids invest their love and devotion into stuffed animals because it's something they can touch, hold and own. These same principles made me invest in the creatures, whom I actually saw them as real characters (it helps the voice casting is so strong).

As visually impressive as the film is, I think it's the screenplay by Jonze and Dave Eggers that give the film its heart and magic. It's economical and straight, and it never states whether Max's adventures are real or imaginary. His journey just happens, and when he's experiencing it, it's all about character interaction and group dynamics. Like the book, there's no central conflict needing to be resolved — no war that has to be fought; no way home that has to be found; no treasure that has to be discovered. The story doesn't feel bound by any plot, which makes Max's time feel limitless. We watch him learn, play and interact, knowing he could leave any time.

One thing that puts the film a step above other children's fantasies is the dialogue, which has a certain level of sophistication. It's not simple-minded, cute or patronizing just because the intended audience is children. Consider the scene when Judith (Catherine O'Hara) attacks Max for playing favorites. I never expected to hear such words in this kind of movie, but it was refreshing and fitting.

I also appreciated how the film never saw any of its situations as weird or bizarre. That's because it knows the world stems from the mind of a child, where anything is possible. There's a truly wonderful scene when Max must hide from Carol. Where he finds a hiding place, I won't say, but it's handled directly and delicately without suggesting anything inappropriate.

If the film has a flaw, and this is not a wholly justifiable one, it's that its themes are perhaps too flagrant. Adults will guess the creatures and situations are manifestations of Max's personality, but I think Jonze could have made them even more subtle. For example, I'm not sure we needed the snowball fight at the beginning of the film, which parallels the mud ball fight later on. Maybe Jonze could have given the audience, namely kids, even more credit to pick things up on their own. When they revisit this film later on in their lives, they'll realize what everything meant. Still, perhaps it's just fine as is, since it all takes place from the mind of a child, who likes things to be literal.

Where The Wild Things Are is a film all kids should see. It's magical and innovative without being condescending. It speaks to kids (and adults) on a practical level—like they're people. Jonze doesn't go for any cute or slapstick effect, but lets it play naturally. Much of this is thanks to the remarkable performance by Records, who's in every scene and carries the film splendidly. In the last five minutes, in which no dialogue is spoken, he convinces us Max has learned a valuable lesson, and the closing shot tells us it won't be the last time this happens. So goes the life of a kid...and adult.