Where the Wild Things Are is a primal rumpus for the inner child
Watch the trailer for Where the Wild Things Are.
Directed by Spike Jonze. Starring Max Records. Rated G. Opens Friday, October 16
From the outside, Where the Wild Things Are may look like a kids’ movie, but in some ways it’s like watching an adult—an artsy, indie-minded Gen Xer, to be exact—trying to tap his inner child.
Fortunately for director Spike Jonze, who adapted Maurice Sendak’s beloved 1963 storybook with novelist Dave Eggers, he’s able to unleash that primal “wild rumpus”. But the question is, who’s his audience? His movie is full of eye-popping wonder, but it is too melancholy to fully appeal to the preschoolers who love the book. It’s more likely to speak to both mopey 10-to-12-year-olds and ironic 20-to-40-somethings who’ll get a hipster vibe that includes Karen O’s acoustic-tinged score and the black Chuck Taylors Max wears with that signature wolf costume.
Wild Things starts out strong. Max (Max Records), is a lonely nine-year-old who’s starved for attention; his working single mom (a note-perfect haggard-but-loving Catherine Keener) is too harried to handle his frenzied world of homemade forts, collapsing igloos, and crazy costumes. When she loses it on him one night, Max runs away: the bushes outside his house (not the bedroom of the book) become a jungle, and soon he finds himself setting sail on the high seas, to where the Wild Things are.
The monsters he finds there could not look better. Instead of going full CGI, Jonze tapped Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. The beasts are wild and woolly, handcrafted and touchable, but thanks to a few high-tech tricks, they can throw each other meaningful glances, flare their nostrils, and slouch in disaffection.
When Max arrives, Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini) is smashing the island’s giant-bird’s-nest-like huts in a tantrum, and everyone is having trouble getting along. Max convinces them he is the “most wild thing of all” and they make him their king. In turn, he assures them: “I have a sadness shield that keeps out all the sadness.”
Unfortunately, that’s not the case. These wild things are an awfully neurotic, talkative bunch. Jonze has made the decision to play their fantastical look off ordinary, noncartoonish voices, including those of Catherine O’Hara and Forest Whitaker. They are meant to reflect Max himself—they can’t control their impulses, they have trouble living as a family. But footlong claws and shaggy fur aside, they come off as insecure, unhappy adults. “Oh look, everybody wants to be friends with the new guy,” the self-loathing ram-monster complains sarcastically of the boy visitor.
The rugged Australian setting—golden sand dunes, forests swirling with cherry blossoms, seaside cliffs—gives the land of the Wild Things an otherworldly feel. If only there were more of the whimsically surreal touches, like the time one monster swallows Max to hide him. Mostly, the plot devolves into a blur of wild rumpus—dirt-clump fights, rolling down hills, and playing chase through the forest.
Those scenes are for the five-year-olds; but the rest of the self-analyzing stuff spun out from Sendak’s taut, three-minute masterpiece? It’s best suited to those wild things who wish they were five again.