Where the Wild Things Are director/co-writer Spike Jonze has said his film is not a childrens’ movie but a movie about childhood. It’s a distinction that sums up what’s wonderful about this adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s classic book. This isn’t a crowd-pleaser; it’s an art film. But it should connect with anybody who knows a child, or remembers the restless emotional energy that comes with being a child.
Sendak’s book is famously brief, made up of about a dozen pages some of which have no words. In adapting the work, Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers smartly chose not to expand too much on the plot (which boils down to: a boy named Max gets in trouble, is sent to his room, imagines a fantastic journey to an island of scary-friendly “wild things,” then returns to the comforts of home). They have added a big sister who abandons Max for a group of her friends and they have interpreted the lack of a father in the book as a sign that Max’s parents are divorced.
And on the island, they have given each wild thing a voice and personality, making them echoes of Max himself as well as the people in his life. This is a film you can analyze for hours, finding parallels between Max’s fantasy and his real life, and I’m not sure there are any definitive answers. Certain creatures are definitely stand-ins for his mother, sister and absent father but those lines cross and blend.
The island fantasy is essentially the internalization of all the fears, insecurities and excitement of childhood. This is how imaginative kids process their surroundings, assign meaning to their emotions. I’m reminded of another great children’s book — When Sophia Gets Angry — Really, Really Angry — which depicts a young girl, frustrated by a fight with her little sister and a scolding by her parents, who escapes outside to sit in a tall tree and let the wide world calm her down. That book doesn’t show what’s happening in Sophia’s mind, but perhaps she’s visiting an imaginary island of her own.
I was most impressed with Spike Jonze’s work in the film’s real-world bookends. The island scenes are ferociously imaginative and beautifully filmed but I think it’s a taller order to capture a real family dynamic and the spirit of a rambunctious 9-year-old in just a handful of scenes early on. I’ve always felt that Jonze, who has so far dealt only with bizarre subject manner, has made his films great because of what he does in the “straight” scenes. A dinner scene in Adaptation in which Meryl Streep retreats to the bathroom for a moment of quiet has stuck with me longer than any of that film’s more brazen narrative twists. And Being John Malkovich, as absurd a film as you can imagine, is anchored by the gravity of its simplest scenes.
In Where the Wild Things Are, Jonze is certainly aided by having Catherine Keener portray the mother… she brings a lovely authenticity to everything she does. And young Max Records, in his first film role, delivers one of the best child performances I’ve seen. He’s in every scene of the film and doesn’t take a false step. James Gandolfini deserves special mention for his voice work as Carol, the wild thing closest to Max. He’s childlike and angry (not unlike Tony Soprano, now that I think of it) but incredibly vulnerable too. Paul Dano, Chris Cooper, Lauren Ambrose, Catherine O’Hara and Forrest Whitaker give voice to the other wild things, beautifully.
Ultimately, Where the Wild Things Are hit me a little more in my head than in my heart or my gut. At times, it certainly pulled me in emotionally but I was more fascinated by it than devastated. That’s why I rank it below Up, another movie ostensibly aimed at kids but really better appreciated by adults. But that’s a minor issue — this is yet another wonderful film in a year already chock full of them.