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.

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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).

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