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