Of course, Sendak's book was only ten sentences long, so some expansion has been needed, courtesy of Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers. The main character is Max (Max Records), a boy of about nine or ten. He lives with his single mother (Catherine Keener) and resents that she brings over a potential new boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo); it makes him feel marginalized. Max doesn't appear to have any real friends apart from his dog, and his attempts at engaging with his sister and her friends only leave him in tears. Max definitely has a "wild" side. He puts on a wool coat with a fuzzy wolf's-head hood and howls at his mother in anger one night, then runs out the door and down the street.
Here's where the imagination comes in. Max hops into a little boat and makes his way to a remote island populated by enormous fuzzy monsters. Not cute monsters either. Scary ones. Convincing them that he is a king, Max quickly becomes incorporated into their society, which generally involves smashing things and bickering at each other. A particularly close friendship develops between Max and Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini). Pay attention and you will see some close resemblances between the boy and the creatures. Carol resents the attention fellow monster KW (Lauren Ambrose) gives to her new "friends," a couple of owls. Alexander (Paul Dano) feels that no one listens to him. Judith (Catherine O'Hara) is kind of grumpy and confrontational. Each one seems to represent a different aspect of Max's personality. He tries to bring everyone together by leading the charge to build a special fort "where only things you want to happen will happen." A noble goal, certainly, but also one that Max eventually realizes is impossible.
Where the Wild Things Are is either going to upset or delight fans of the book. There probably won't be much in between. It seems to me that Jonze has expanded on some of the ideas inherent in Sendak's story. On the page, Max is merely a kid who delves into a fantasy world during a moment of frustration after being punished; his dreams provide a temporary refuge from reality. Jonze's movie uses this general jumping-off point to go a little deeper. The creatures are representations of Max's inner turmoil, which springs from feelings of disconnectedness and rejection. On the island, he tries to make everything all right for them, eventually accepting that it's not an achievable task. This version of Where the Wild Things Are is very psychological, as the young hero comes to terms with the knowledge that his only option is to do the best he can in an imperfect situation.
It is interesting to see this boy come to terms with his angry, untamed side, especially since the style of the film is so unlike most PG-rated family films. Jonze uses handheld cameras to capture the action. Color is minimal - mostly shades of brown and gray. The music isn't your typical upbeat kids' movie stuff either; Yeah Yeah Yeah's front-woman Karen O provides an assortment of eccentrically catchy tunes that compliment the action on-screen. It should surprise no one that Spike Jonze has refused to make your typical candy-colored family film (although it apparently surprised Warner Bros. which kept the movie on the shelf for a year in hopes that the director would warm it up, which he thankfully didn't). What we get is a work of genuine imagination and intelligence, something that doesn't try to ram the same old feel-good platitudes down our collective throat. Everything about Where the Wild Things Are feels unique.
A few words about the creatures themselves: Jonze has done a very crafty thing here. He's blended people in costumes, puppetry, and CGI to create monsters that are totally believable and never feel like a special effect. CGI characters have shared space with real actors before, but at some level, aren't we always aware that it's a trick? By using actors in costumes created by Jim Henson's Creature Shop - with facial expressions enhanced by computers - we are able to more fully believe Max's interactions with them. This is crucial to the emotion of the story. If we just saw Max cavorting with obvious CGI beings, the impact would be less notable.
I think my favorite scene in Where the Wild Things Are is one in which Max, attempting to reduce some of the friction in the group, proposes a "dirt clod fight." He and the creatures joyously let out their aggression by hurling clumps of dirt at one another. This essentially sums up the theme for me. Max needs to let out his aggression. Like a lot of kids, he doesn't know what to do with it. His solution turns that aggression into something fun and cathartic. He literally learns how to cope with the feelings that are tripping him up. The scene is funny because the monsters hurl the dirt really hard, causing each target to fall ass-over-tea kettle, yet there's also a fair amount of truth underneath. To a kid, that's a solution that makes sense. Some feelings just need to find a means of being set free. Where the Wild Things Are is filled with such moments of weird, wonderful, imaginative wisdom.
( out of four)
Where the Wild Things Are will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray on March 2 in widescreen format. The movie looks and sounds great on disc.
The DVD's special features are four mini-documentaries, all of which have been directed by frequent Spike Jonze collaborator Lance Bangs:
The Blu-Ray contains all of these short documentaries, plus four more. It also has an extra feature that is very, very cool. "Higglety Pigglety Pop! Or There Must Be More to Life" is a 23-minute short film adaptation of another Maurice Sendak book. Combining live action and puppetry, the movie focuses on a puppy (voiced by Meryl Streep) who decides to leave the comfort of her home in search of new adventures. She ends up getting a job trying to feed a rambunctious baby, and also encounters a mysterious cat, a ferocious lion, and a scheming pig. "Higglety Pigglety Pop!" is wonderfully strange and entertaining, with some really creative use of puppets. It serves as a perfect companion piece to the main feature.
Where the Wild Things Are is rated PG for mild thematic elements, some adventure action and brief language. The running time is 1 hour and 41 minutes.
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