Where the Wild Things Are (United States, 2009)

October 14, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Where the Wild Things Are Poster

Where the Wild Things Are may be the first family film in recent memory to rely not on narrative or character development but on ideas and the director's vision. The result is an involving experience for all but the most fidgety children and an opportunity for parents to enjoy (rather than endure) a motion picture with their offspring. For director Spike Jonze, this represents a "pet project" and it turns out better than is often the case when a filmmaker is too close to the source material. There are problems, but they are mostly minor and do little to detract from Where the Wild Things Are's effectiveness as a 2009 answer to The Wizard of Oz.

Max (Max Records) is an incorrigible nine-year old. At times, he can be sweet and endearing, but he has moments when moodiness and a volcanic temper cause him to lash out at those close to him, specifically his mother (Catherine Keener) and his older sister, Claire (Pepita Emmerichs). One wintry day, Max builds a snow fort. When a snowball fight with Claire's friends gets out of hand and Max's fort is destroyed, he is thrown into a funk. Later, when his mom ignores him in favor of chatting with a date (Mark Ruffalo in a cameo), he goes ballistic before running away from home. His destination, like Dorothy's, is deep in his imagination. He ends up on an island populated by seven "Wild Things," each of which represents an element of his psyche. At their first meeting, they appoint him king, and Max faces the challenge of satisfying the difficult and often conflicting demands of his "subjects." In the process, he learns about the hardships and rewards of being part of a family.

The opening segments - those that precede Max's escape into his imagination - are evocative and will likely strike a chord of familiarity with those who spent their childhoods in snowy climes. This part of the film is also important in establishing the aspects of Max's mercurial personality, since it's helpful to see them integrated in his persona before meeting them as stand-alone entities. The first 10 (or so) minutes are concrete and well-grounded in reality (at least as seen from a nine-year old's perspective), and they exist in contrast to the majority of Where the Wild Things Are, where events transpire on a lost, fantasy island.

The movie's plot is minimal; it's more about changes to Max's worldview than anything physical. Much of what happens on the island concentrates on his interactions with the various creatures he encounters there. It's here that things tend to meander as the dramatic momentum flags. In adapting Maurice Sendak's illustrated book, Jonze was forced to expand the canvas significantly, and this leads to some narrative and pacing issues during the midsection. Dorothy's journey along the Yellow Brick Road explores many of the same ideas with a tighter focus. Jonze also fashions a level of separation between Max and the audience, creating situations in which the intellectual resonance is stronger than the emotional one. One doesn't feel invested in Max's adventure in a way that would elevate this story to the high level achieved by the best children's story adaptation of recent years, A Bridge to Terabithia.

The central relationship on the island is between Max and the giant Carol (whose voice is provided by James Gandolfini). Carol, for lack of a better term, represents Max's soul: a need for friendship and unconditional love coupled with the capacity for destruction. By coming to terms with Carol, Max learns to understand himself and, most importantly, the trauma he has been causing his mother. Another important friendship develops between Max and the nurturing KW (voice of Lauren Ambrose), who represents the aspect of Max we see early in the movie when he curls up by his mother's feet.

The creature design is an incredible feat of imagination, evoking with near-flawless effectiveness the illustrations in Sendak's book. The Wild Things provide the impression of muppets and Big Bird (not surprising considering the involvement of Jim Henson's Creature Shop), but not in a cartoony way. They are the kinds of giant puppets that Sid and Marty Krofft would have used in H.R. Pufnstuf given the technology and budget. As "cute" as they sometimes appear, they are capable of generating an aura of menace. When Carol becomes enraged, there's nothing cuddly about him. The importance of getting the look of the Wild Things right should not be underestimated, since the film's success relies on this. Jonez and his team find the right balance between three-dimensional embodiments of the book's creatures and entities that work in the context of a live-action motion picture.

The only actor with significant screen time is relative newcomer Max Records, whose only previous feature credit is a small part in The Brothers Bloom (he played Stephen as a boy). Records' greatest strength is his incredibly expressive face. He conveys emotions through his expressions; his delivery of dialogue is less certain. It remains to be seen whether his career trajectory will lead him to become the next "big" child actor or whether he'll perform on the periphery until puberty hits. Catherine Keener has a small role as Max's mom, and her confident presence in her few scenes makes us wish Jonze had found a way to expand her screen time. The vocal casting is perfect: James Gandolfini as Carol, Lauren Ambrose as KW, Paul Dano as the goat Alexander; Catherine O'Hara as the perpetually negative Judith; Forest Whitaker as Judith's sadsack companion, Ira; Chris Cooper as Douglas, this film's Big Bird; and Michael Berry Jr. as the taciturn Bull. Only Gandolfini's voice is immediately recognizable; everyone else blends anonymously into their parts, and the Tony Soprano connection serves only to invest Carol with an extra edge.

Where the Wild Things Are is Jonze's third feature length motion picture (he is probably still best known for his music videos). The sense of visual imagination one has come to expect based on Being John Malkovich and Adaptation (both written by Charlie Kaufman) is fulfilled here. This movie is nothing if not an embodiment of Jonze's flair and style. Most importantly, it fulfills the #1 criterion of any family film: it involves viewers of all ages on different levels. Children will react viscerally (both positively and negatively, with delight and fear) to the creatures, pre-teens and young teens will connect with Max and instinctively relate to his experiences, and adults will recognize the allegorical nature of the experience and enjoy it for what it is. This is probably the best family film since Disney's Up, and one of the most visually interesting pictures of the year. Whether or not it's a big success during its theatrical run, this is the kind of movie people will be watching for years to come at home.

Where the Wild Things Are (United States, 2009)

Run Time: 1:42
U.S. Release Date: 2009-10-16
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1