Like most people born in the 1960s and 70s, I grew up with the beloved Maurice Sendak book Where the Wild Things Are. I acted it out in my room and had an idea of how it would look in real life. Needless to say my expectations were high when I heard acclaimed director Spike Jonze was adapting it for the big screen. Over the last two years I’ve been preparing for it to fall short of my childhood memories — thankfully, that is not the case. The film that Jonze has made is as magical, touching and beautiful as it is on the page.
Max (Max Records) is a lonely, rambunctious boy with a great sense of storytelling. He dresses in a wolf costume, plays in snow forts and has a lot of energy. Yet he is also very sad and is only truly happy when his mother (Catherine Keener) or sister (Pepita Emmerichs) pay attention to him, and when they don’t, he lashes out. He is an average, normal boy – something we don’t see often on screen.
One night his mother brings home a “friend” (Mark Ruffalo) which sets Max off (Max’s father is not in the picture). In anger he yells at her, bites her and runs away. Ending up on the edge of a lake Max finds a boat, gets in and drifts out to sea. When he hits shore he is greeted by giant, speaking creatures (the Wild Things). Carol (James Gandolfini) is furry and hot-headed, Judith (Catherine O’Hara) is nasty and has horns on her head and nose, Ira (Forest Whitaker) is soft-spoken and welcoming, Alexander (Paul Dano) is a goat-like thing who is ignored by the others, Douglas (Chris Cooper) is a big bird, KW (Lauren Ambrose) is furry and depressed, and The Bull (Michael Berry Jr.) is a quiet, mean-looking bull. They all represent traits that Max possesses.
The creatures want to eat him but they also need a king to be happy. And Max, dressed in his wolf costume, wins them over with stories of overtaking vikings and other adventures. Believing the boy worthy, they spare him and crown him king. First order of business is a “wild rumpus,” second is to start building their new home – an underground fortress that Max and Carol design. Everyone seems to be in good spirits until KW invites two outsiders into the mix (with Max’s approval) and Carol becomes enraged. Emotions run high, and feelings get hurt. Max decides he should go back home to his family and he leaves the Wild Things behind.
Having a newcomer play Max was one of the best things Jonze did. Records is raw, real and feels like the Max in the book literally jumped off the page. How seeing Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter for the first time made you smile and nod in approval, Records will do the same. I’m sure he’ll become quite the star as Radcliffe has and we will see him in many more films.
The voices of the Wild Things are all perfectly cast too. When Carol is mean, Gandolfini sounds like his typical Tony Soprano voice. But when he’s being nice it’s an entire different tone and range that I’ve never heard from him before. O’Hara is wonderful, as she usually is when lending her voice to a role, and Dano, Whitaker, Ambrose and Cooper were all welcome surprises. The look of the creatures was something special too. These are giant costumes with seamless CGI faces instead of complete CGI figures. Another nod to Jonze for not taking the easy way out and actually putting care into the production instead of relying on a computer to do it.
How a book as short as Where the Wild Things Are could be turned into an engaging feature film is something I’ve heard asked a lot. Chalk that up to Jonze and the brilliant Dave Eggers (who also wrote Away We Go earlier this year). The story they’ve written never strays far from the source but adds to it in ways you would never expect. Scenes such as the ones that include long stretches of Max alone with no dialogue are unheard of these days. It works well though and hit a nerve with me that at times I felt like I watching my own son play in his room.
Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs put together an original soundtrack for the film as Karen O and the Kids. It’s youthful, fun and very dark – like the film itself. It is such a part of the experience it could be an additional character. It’s enjoyable without seeing the movie but once you see how it is used with the image it becomes addictive. It’s been allowing me to re-live the film in my head every time I listen to it.
Although I’d say this is one of the greatest family films ever made it is not always sunny and does have scary scenes that small children might not understand. But that’s what’s so refreshing about it. Jonze understands there is no need to gloss over true emotions for the sake of children. Kids will respect you if you don’t talk down to them and this film respects them.
It’s as if Jonze has tapped into the imagination of all the children who ever read the book and filmed it for the world to see. This is the Where the Wild Things Are film you’ve imagined and it will live with us for years to come.
**** out of 5 stars