Director: Spike Jonze
Starring: Max Records
Like E.T. before it, Where The Wild Things Are is more a film about children than for them. It is occasionally dark and intense as it attempts to dramatize the protagonist’s feelings about the changing world around him, which he is not quite old enough to really articulate. The world created in the film is beautiful, though it occasionally seems as if director Spike Jonze doesn’t know quite what to do with it and gets so caught up in creating an atmosphere of child-like wonder that he forgets to give the film shape.
The film is adapted from the story of the same name by Maurice Sendak which, at only ten sentences, requires some padding on the part of Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers. It begins and ends with the “real” life of young Max (Max Records), a rowdy kid struggling to deal with the changes taking place all around him. His parents are divorced, his mom (Catherine Keener) has a new boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo), his sister doesn’t have time for him and would rather be with her friends, and his teacher informs his class that one day the sun will die, killing everything else. It’s a heavy time and Max doesn’t understand how or why everything is changing nor does he possess the language to express his feelings about it. He acts out physically, trashing his sister’s room after her friends destroy the igloo he’s made, and he throws a tantrum which culminates in biting his mother when her boyfriend comes over for dinner. Clad in his wolf costume, he runs away from home.
After boarding a boat, he travels across a vast sea to an island, which he finds is inhabited by various monsters, each with distinct looks and personalities. There’s Carol (James Gandolfini), who is essentially the “Max” of the monsters, Judith (Catherine O’Hara), Ira (Forrest Whitaker), Alexander (Paul Dano), Douglas (Chris Cooper), KW (Lauren Ambrose), and the mysterious silent Bull. Max is made King of the wild things and through the course of various episodes with them, learns lessons that will inspire him to return home to his family.
As much as I liked this movie, its weaknesses are pretty glaring. The story is thin and it tends to drag during Max’s time on the island, which is when the film should be at its most exciting. Towards the end I found myself wanting Max to hurry up and get home because I actually found that part of the story more interesting. Visually, Max’s sojourn is breathtaking – the wild things, which are people in costumes created of The Jim Henson Company with some additional special effects, look perfect and the art direction is great (I particularly liked Carol’s miniature island with the tiny wild thing figurines) – but the story just sort of wanders around until Max is ready to go home. It’s fortunate that Records is so perfect as Max – neither obnoxiously precocious nor too knowing and adult-like – because otherwise the film might have fallen apart completely. He finds just the right note between bratty and vulnerable so that we feel for Max even as we bemoan his behavior.
Where The Wild Things Are is a film that has its heart in the right place but perhaps suffers under the weight of expectation. It is an ambitious project and it's no wonder that it took so many years to bring it to the big screen, but the story doesn't really live up to the visuals. I still think it's a film worth seeing, particularly if you grew up with and loved the book, but it's not nearly as resonant as it could have been.