Imagination Running “Wild”

Director Spike Jonze’s first film, “Being John Malkovich,” was a breath of fresh air in a usually stale Hollywood.  The film was imaginative and original, unlike anything previously seen on the big screen.  His latest film “Where the Wild Things Are,” adapted from Maurice Sendak’s award-winning children’s book, is another triumph of creativity and ingenuity.  It is far from a family-friendly film, instead tackling the inner workings of a troubled child’s mind while simultaneously bringing Sendak’s characters to larger-than-life status.

It is made clear that this film is not for kids during the first 2 minutes, as Max (played by relative newcomer Max Records) tears around his house, chasing the dog while wearing his wolf costume.  He eventually catches the dog, wrestles with it, and then Max’s seemingly innocuous play fighting turns ugly, as he tightens his grip on the dog and howls menacingly.  The frame freezes, catching Max in a disturbing pose.  It’s a very effective way of setting up the rest of the movie.

Sendak’s book is actually quite short, with Max traveling to an imaginary land in his own mind, meeting a group of monsters who make them their king, but eventually he misses his family and finds happiness in his own home.  The film stays true to this, but fills the rest of the time with a whole story of Max’s relationship with the monsters. 

We get an understanding of why Max behaves as he does – his father is absent (dead, divorced, we don’t know), he has no friends, he’s ignored by his older sister, and his mom has little time for him.  After a violent outburst at home, Max runs away, running until he escapes into his imagination, and sails a ship to an island where he finds the “wild things.”

Max’s own behavior is reflected in the monster “Carol” (voiced by James Gandolfini) – Carol likes to break things, likes to express his individuality; Max instantly bonds with him.  The other monsters, looking for some sort of leadership, accept Max as their “king” – Max of course is happy as can be, as he has finally found people who accept him, and most importantly, listen to him.  But eventually Max’s boasting and odd demands cause strife within his new society, and he begins to realize that perhaps this is not the place for him.

There is a lot of humor in the monster clan; the dialogue is well-written for the other vocal actors like Catherine O’Hara, Chris Cooper and Forest Whitaker.  A love story develops between Carol and KW (voiced by Lauren Ambrose, the fantastic actress who played Claire in the “Six Feet Under” series), but this is an unnecessary and uninteresting subplot.  It’s the one aspect of the film where I felt the filmmakers were struggling to fill up 90 minutes worth of material.

Where the film truly succeeds is in the personalities and the societal customs of the monsters.  They sleep in a big pile, one on top of another, much to Max’s delight (due to his apparent lack of affection at home).  They race to the coastline and howl at the setting sun.  These things are not in the book – Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers crafted a wonderful vision of the monsters’ land and their attributes, and really created a well-thought out connection between Max’s mind and what we see on the screen.  The film drags a bit as the initial triumph of Max’s coronation fades and he assimilates to the monsters’ society, but the ending is touching without being corny, and ultimately we feel as transported to another world as Max does. 

Final Grade for Where the Wild Things Are: B

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