Where the Wild Things Are
What It Is
Inspired by Maurice Sendak’s beloved 1963 children’s book, this movie begins inside the head of nine-year-old Max (Max Records). As he’s chasing his dog through the house, the shots are close, hand-held, and fast; the soundtrack is percussive and breathless; and the behavior, while energetically giddy and childish, isn’t exactly “good.” Max is both a troublemaker and troubled, missing his absent father (who has left him an award encouraging him to think of the world as his own), resentful of his teenaged sister Claire (Pepita Emmerichs), and devoted to his mother (Catherine Keener). When mom is distracted by demands at work and a new boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo), Max begins to misbehave, yelling, climbing on counters, and even biting her.
To avoid her upset and allay his own, Max takes off, running through woods and sailing in a boat. His journey—over the sea for several days and nights—lands him on an island populated by large, wild and excellently rendered creatures (through combinations of CGI, animatronics, and puppets). Max is immediately attracted to the lumbering, angry Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini), who mirrors the boy’s own feelings and “out of control” behavior. But the others all exhibit facets of the world back home, including the independent-minded KW (Lauren Ambrose) and birdish best friend Douglas (Chris Cooper), as well as the goat-like Alexander (Paul Dano), petulant Judith (Catherine O’Hara) and ever-loyal Ira (Forest Whitaker), who happens to be skilled at punching holes in walls and trees.
Worried when the monsters decide to eat him, Max convinces them he’s a king, and so they adopt him as theirs. He assigns tasks, organizes games (like war, with clods of dirt), raises dire questions (is the sun actually dying?), and hopes that, unlike home, here everyone will get along. If Max is too young to recognize himself in this wild place, the point is clear enough for the rest of us: we’re still inside the child’s magnificent imagination.
Why It’s Fun
“Fun” might not be the best word to describe Where the Wild Things Are. While it comes with a PG rating, the movie’s themes are darker and pacing is slower than most mainstream kids’ fare. This is to the film’s credit, but parents should not go in expecting sweetness and light, a wholly happy ending, or action that resembles the cartoony antics of the typical talking dogs or hamsters movie. Treating Max’s anxieties and earnest efforts to sort them out with respect—taking this little boy seriously—Jonze’s movie is strikingly original, wonderfully clever, and genuinely poignant.
Who’s Going To Love It
Unlike most children’s movies, which offer one-liners and silly asides for adults, this one is geared equally toward kids and parents remembering what it was like to be nine. Young children may delight in the running and leaping, but the plot is aimed at a slightly older group. The movie doesn’t condescend to any age, but expects viewers to pay attention, sometimes for long stretches of elliptical conversation or metaphorical imagery. Delivered in 10 sentences and glorious illustrations, Sendak’s story is more likely appealing to young viewers than this more physically elaborate, more emotionally circuitous film version will be. That’s not to say these viewers don’t experience these emotions, only that they don’t usually see such complexity reflected in movies made for them. And that may be the best reason to go see it with them.
What To Be Aware Of
Parents might keep in mind that while Max is wholly sympathetic and mostly charming (Records’ performance is touching and subtle, minus the usual kid star mugging), he is an angry and lonely child. His state of mind is made visible in his own raucous behavior and tears (when his sister’s mean to him, he wrecks her room, then feels worried and isolated), as well as in his wild world on the island. Here especially, the very hugeness of the monsters makes their aggression—even in play—seem menacing. Their games are loud and explosive, their falls are hard, and Carol becomes so disquieted at one point, so fearful of change in his routine, that he destroys his comrades’ homes and (quite disturbingly) rips the arm off his best friend, Douglas the bird. When Max finally finds his way home again, both he and his mother are chastened, a reunion that suggests parents and children might recognize and take responsibility for the effects of losing control.
8 out of 10
Where the Wild Things Are
Director: Spike Jonze
Cast: Max Records, James Gandolfini, Lauren Ambrose, Chris Cooper, Forest Whitaker, Catherine O'Hara, Paul Dano, Mark Ruffalo, Michael Berry Jr., Catherine Keener
Studio: Warner Bros.
US Premiere: October 16, 2009
UK Premiere: December 11, 2009