(Warner Brothers) Max Records, Catherine Keener, James Gandolfini (voice), Catherine O’Hara (voice), Forrest Whitaker (voice), Lauren Ambrose (voice), Chris Cooper (voice), Mark Ruffalo, Paul Dano (voice), Pepita Emmerichs. Directed by Spike Jonze
In all of us there is a wild side. It is the side that defies authority, the part of us that breaks the rules and the part of us that acts out when we don’t get what we want. It is the part in us that is closest to the child in us, so it is no surprise that children are more cognizant of their wild thing than we are.
Max (Records) is a young boy being raised by a single mother (Keener) who is too busy working to have the time for him he would like her to have. He doesn’t have many friends, and his sister (Emmerichs) is older, moving into teenager things and having even less time than his mom does.
He has a vivid imagination, turning a snowdrift into an igloo and old toilet paper dispensers into fantastic skyscrapers. However, he has had difficulty adjusting to a life without his dad and when his mom starts dating a new boyfriend (Ruffalo) he has a nuclear meltdown and runs away.
He finds a small boat and navigates it out to see. After a day and a night he arrives at a strange island with a rocky shoreline as dusk is falling. He is attracted by flickering torches and is startled to discover a group of strange, shaggy creatures, one of whom is in the process of destroying their huts. His name is Carol (Gandolfini) and he is distraught because one of their number has left the family. Max reveals himself and Carol takes to him immediately as a kindred spirit.
Not all the others are so welcoming. Judith (O’Hara) is described as a bit of a downer, and that’s accurate enough – she is suspicious of Max and wants to eat him. However, when Max reveals himself to be a king in his own country, the others (even Judith) relents and accept Max as their new king, the Wild Things being without a king at the time. Max declares a wild rumpus and the commotion attracts the attention of KW (Ambrose) who also instantly takes a liking to Max. Max, for his part, has found the family he’s always wanted.
That family also includes Ira (Whitaker), a gentle giant who is in love with Judith and is also nearly as fond of making holes in things; Douglas (Cooper), Carol’s best friend and right hand, Alexander (Dano) who is consistently ignored by the others and the Bull, who mostly communicates in grunts. Max decides to have them build a fort where only the things they want to have happen occur. He gets the idea when Carol shows him his secret spot on the island where he has built a model city out of twigs, complete with canals and figures of his family members.
At first building the fort gives them purpose but as time goes on Max begins to realize that being King of the Wild Things isn’t as easy as it first appeared and that his more aggressive nature was causing some of his new family pain.
There is no doubt that Spike Jonze has an incredible imagination, and he may well have been the perfect choice to bring the classic children’s story by Maurice Sendak to life. Visually, this is very imaginative, unlike any movie you’ve ever seen. The faces of the Wild Things are amazing, CGI representations of the actors who are voicing them given a Wild Thing treatment. These CGI faces are then digitally inserted onto actors wearing oversized costumes, creating a natural movement that no computer could have replicated.
Records is a pretty decent actor as children go in a part that is not a typical kids part. For one thing, Max doesn’t have all the answers – in fact, he has far more questions than answers. He isn’t smarter than the grown-ups around him and he doesn’t save the day. Basically, he’s an unruly boy with emotional issues.
Therein lies my problem with the movie. Max is never accountable for his actions; when he bites his mother, she screams at him that he’s out of control and he screams back that it isn’t his fault. Well, whose fault is it then?
More egregiously, the movie diverges from the book on some key points. Now, while I’m usually fine about movies being different from the books they’re based on, one of the key elements of Where the Wild Things Are (the book) is that it all takes place inside Max’s room, literally inside his head. Here, the Wild Thing Island is literally an island that Max travels to.
The ending of the movie isn’t terribly realistic either. When Max arrives home after (presumably) running away for several days, his mother greets him with dinner and chocolate cake for desert. I don’t know about your mom but mine would have hugged me and then killed me had I run away like that.
This is such a visually arresting movie that it’s worth seeing just on that basis. There are some terrific performances, particularly from Gandolfini who captures the blustery Carol’s mood swings and inner pain. I do have a problem with the movie’s message, which seems to be that it is okay to give in to the Wild Thing inside and there will be no consequences, no repercussions. Lots of kids will be seeing this and get the message that acting out is ok, whether that’s the message the filmmakers (and Sendak) wanted to send or not.
We all have wild things inside of us. It is a part of us, as is the part that is responsible and caring for each other. The Wild Things tend to be the side of us that is selfish and undisciplined, necessary for our creative sides to come out but at the end of the day, merely a component of our psyches. Sendak always meant the Wild Things of his book to be elements of Max’ personality, and they are here as well; the important thing is that the Wild Things are not the Only Things. As for the movie, it’s flawed but I applaud the effort, the imagination and the visual sense. It’s certainly worth your attention.
REASONS TO GO: Jonze amazing visual sense makes this a treat for the imagination. It is, after all, the filmed version of one of the most beloved children’s books of all time.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie veers away from the book in some significant ways. Max is so troubled that at times it’s hard to watch him act out. There are almost no lessons in accountability and the ending is far more of a fantasy than the rest of the movie.
FAMILY VALUES: A little bit of language and violence, as well as some kid-in-jeopardy scenes but all in all suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original songs in the movie were written and performed by Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, who was dating Jonze at the time of the production. They’ve since broken up.
HOME OR THEATER: This should be seen on the big screen, no question.
FINAL RATING: 6/10
TOMORROW: Six Days of Darkness begins!