I don’t use this word lightly, but “Where The Wild Things Are” is an absolute masterpiece, and it’s the finest offering from any Hollywood studio thus far this year.
It is a gorgeous, painful, heartfelt look at the turbulence of childhood, shot through with the wisdom that only perspective can allow, but told in a way that grounds us in the POV of a child. It’s smart, deceptively simple, and richly imagined. I saw a rough cut of the film in 2007 at the now-infamous test screening, and even in rough form, it rattled me deeply. But finished, the film is a miracle of sorts, a movie that authentically captures the experience of what it’s like when you’re too young to fully manage your own emotional landscape, but old enough to know you have no control.
It is also, in my opinion, the perfect model of what adaptation should be.
Maurice Sendak’s book has been part of my life since I was a little boy, and the real power of his story is how much it suggests in less than 200 words. The art, the choice of how he says what he says, and the dreamlike logic of the piece all combine to weave a powerful spell over both children and adults. When my first son was born, “Where The Wild Things Are” was the first book I purchased for him, while he was still in the hospital with my wife, waiting to come home. It felt important to me to have a copy of the book in the house, and as story time has become a nightly institution in the house, Toshi calls for the book at least once a week. This and Dr. Seuss’s “Oh! The Places You’ll Go” are his two favorites, the ones we return to more often than any other, and when you consider the way Seuss has been treated by Hollywood, this movie seems like even more of a miracle.
Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers (with some late-in-the-game help from Charlie Kaufman) have used Sendak’s book as a springboard for a screenplay that reaches much deeper than what is typically passed off on children. I think there’s something profoundly cynical and borderline evil about the way Hollywood treats children as idiots, churning out one lowest-common-denominator piece of garbage after another for what they see of as the easiest audience. When they took “Cat In The Hat” and turned it from a charming comic piece about how to handle the boredom of a rainy day and turned it into a loud, noisy, ugly, grotesque fart-and-boner joke, it seemed indicative of the way the system fails young viewers time and again. And certainly, there was potential for “Where The Wild Things Are” to suffer the same fate.
The first section of the film, in which we meet Max (Max Records), is bitter and sad, and it seems almost uncomfortably honest. Max lives with his mother (Catherine Keener) and his older sister Claire (Pepita Emmerichs), with a father who is unexplainedly absent, and Max is clearly struggling to figure out how the world works and what is place in it is. At school, he listens to lectures about how the sun will die, taking the world with it. At home, he watches his mother cozy up to a new boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo). He’s lonely, and on the rare occasion he reaches out to try and play with Claire and her friends, he ends up bloodied and humiliated as a result. It is little wonder, then, that Max acts out, trashing Claire’s room, breaking up his mother’s date, his anger so intense and unfocused that he has no idea how to handle it. Max Records does remarkable, nuanced work in the film, and it’s one of the best overall child performances since “E.T.” or “The Black Stallion,” films which this reminds me of in many ways.
When Max runs away from home, overcome by emotion one night, he finds a boat and an ocean in a place neither should exist, and he heads out to sea. I love the way Jonze insisted on using real locations as much as possible, and there’s something primal about the sight of this little boy, adrift in a tiny boat on a real ocean. Max finally spots an island, and on it, a light. He heads for it, hoping to find some sort of comfort or safety, and instead comes face to face with a group of giant monsters in the midst of a dispute. The largest of the bunch, Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini), is in the grips of a temper tantrum, tearing down the homes where the Wild Things sleep. Max is terrified at first, but the more he listens and watches, the more he finds himself drawn in, and finally, he has no choice but to charge right into the middle of their camp so he can join in the wonton destruction. The Wild Things have no idea what to make of him at first, but Max’s bravado and his spiritual kinship to them wins them over, and he finds himself appointed King.
There’s not a ton of plot to the film, and that’s because Jonze knows this isn’t a book in which the events are as imporant as what they signify. The real masterstroke of the film is the way the Wild Things are each used to embody one of the fears or the emotions that Max is struggling to deal with in his life. Externalizing the things that children grapple to handle in their lives is a powerful metaphor, and scene after scene, the film is an emotional sledgehammer. That’s because Jonze never once condescends. He never once pulls back. He never once takes the easy way out of a scene. He knows that children can smell bullshit better than adults can, and he knows that the moment he takes a short-cut, the film stops working.
Right now, I’m involved in therapy that’s teaching me how to channel my own life-long anger issues into more productive and healthy outlets, and it’s hard work. I’m doing it, though, because I dearly love my wife and my kids, and I don’t want any of them to hate living with me. At 6’2″, I don’t exactly tower over most adults, but to a four-year-old or a two-year-old, I seem big as a house, much like the Wild Things must to Max. My temper is almost always aimed at myself and my own shortcomings, but even so, my explosions sends echoes through the entire family, and understanding that is important. These are all new ideas for me, and so when I reached a certain scene in the film, I wasn’t prepared. Judith (voiced by Catherine O’Hara) is one of the most dour of the Wild Things, and she never quite warms up to Max. He can sense it, too, and at one point, she gets sarcastic with him. He begins to mock her, saying everything back in a snide sing-song voice. Frustrated, Judith growls at him, and he growls back, showing just as much tooth as she does. She yells at him, her frustration growing, and he yells back, and Judith recoils, shocked and angry at his display. “No!,” she yells. “You don’t get to yell back at me! You don’t get to be angry back at me! You have to just listen and love me anyway, because that’s your job!” And while my children could never articulate that thought to me, seeing it played out in this one moment destroyed me. Max learns in that moment that, as King, he is responsible for the welfare of the Wild Things, and that responsibility is too big for a boy his size. As an adult, though, I carry that responsibility every day, and to have a “kiddie film,” as I’m sure some people will describe this, articulate an idea that complex and essential in such a direct and naked way… it is revelatory.
Having seen the early rough cut, I know just how massive the undertaking was in finishing the film, and right now, I’d say Framestore deserves the best visual effects Oscar this year for their superheroic work in bringing the various Wild Things to life. You look in their eyes, and these creatures have souls. They may have the giant overstuffed bodies of Jim Henson Workshop characters, but there is a life to them that even the best practical effects can’t quite accomplish. It is a canny blend of the real and the unreal, a near-perfect example of how to use CGI to augment something instead of just leaning on it as a catch-all solution to problems. The voice casting is extraordinary here, too, and if there were an Oscar given for voice work, Gandolfini would be this year’s no-contest winner. I’ve always loved the way his voice is at odds with his physicality. He’s such a big guy, but he’s got that mush-mouthed baby voice that seemed like the perfect expression of Tony Soprano’s childish id. Here, he uses his own natural out-of-breath mumble to perfect effect, playing Carol as a creature of almost pure whim, swinging from high to low sometimes in the space of a few sentences. He bonds with Max before anyone else, and probably to a greater extent than anyone else, but in giving himself up so completely, Carol also lays himself open to disappointment and sorrow. He wants to believe in Max as a great king. He wants someone to handle all the hard choices, someone who can assuage all sorrows, someone who can guarantee that the sun will never die. And if Max can’t be that thing, then Carol has no idea what to hold on to. There is a chilling insinuation that Max is not the first King to come to the island, and that Carol has a terrible way of dispatching Kings who displease him, and there are stretches that are genuinely scary, especially for younger viewers. Each of the Wild Things is uniquely designed, drawn directly from the pages of Sendak’s book, and given voice by Lauren Ambrose, Forest Whitaker, Paul Dano, Chris Cooper, O’Hara, Gandolfini, and Michael Berry Jr. There’s not a weak link in the cast.
Lance Acord’s photography eschews almost everything we know about studio-level fantasy filmmaking, opting for a handheld quality that keeps everything spontaneous and loose. I never would have expected that “Jackass” would be a touchstone for the aesthetic of a Sendak adaptation, but when the oh-so-famous wild rumpus begins, or when the Wild Things indulge in a dirt clod war, there is a reckless abandon to it that feels exactly the same as running through the streets of Tokyo with the Night Monkey or going shopping cart surfing. Things constantly feel like they’re just this side of out of control, and for Max, it’s like finding people who speak the exact same language as him, people who see the world through the same eyes as him. It is freedom and joy, and “wild” perfectly describes it. The production design by the great K.K. Barrett works on every level, as does the infectious score by Karen O and the Kids, with some work also contributed by Carter Burwell. Everyone seems to have been seized by the exact same vision as Spike Jonze, and the result is a huge studio movie, as technically challenging as anything you’ll see this year, employing hundreds of people, that somehow feels incredibly personal and intimate.
I quite liked “Being John Malkovich” a decade ago, and it looked to me like the debut of a major artist. “Adaptation” floored me when it was released in 2002. His music videos have always been innovative and witty and eminently rewatchable. But until now, Spike Jonze has just been warming up. “Where The Wild Things Are” is one for the ages, a major accomplishment in a beautiful minor key, and as I revisit it in the months and years to come, I expect it will yield fresh wonders each time. This isn’t Hollywood filmmaking as we’re used to it; it is magic, a gift, and utterly unforgettable.
“Where The Wild Things Are” opens in theaters everywhere, including special IMAX engagements, starting October 16th. While I wouldn’t recommend it for children under nine or ten years of age, I would urge everyone else to rush to see this incredibly special film, and more than once.
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