Director: Spike Jonze
Cast: Max Records, James Gandolfini, Catherine Keener, Lauren Ambrose, Forest Whitaker, Catherine O'Hara, Paul Dano
It's a tough line to draw, between childhood and adulthood - once you've aged and you're all craggy, can you really remember what it's like to run riot, throw snowballs, or bite your own mum? Unlike some filmmakers, Spike Jonze clearly can: his distinctive take on Maurice Sendak's much-loved picture book is a heart-warming, soul-crushing, gorgeous lump of a movie. And best of all? It reeks of childhood. Imagination, that is. Not piddle.
But Jonze's adaptation is certainly a personal one - deviating from Sendak's story, his Where the Wild Things Are sees Max (the brilliantly natural Records) literally run away from home after nipping his mother on the arm (Keener). He doesn't just walk into a forest through his bedroom wall. Oh no. Injured in a snowball fight with his sister and her friends, Max is rejected and angry, only to find little attention at home. So he dons his monster suit and sneaks out the front door, setting sail to the far-off island. But while purists complain, there's no less honesty in this retelling; from a child's perspective, imagination and reality look exactly the same, so magic wallpaper need only worry fussy adults. If anything, this new scenario simply adds an edge of fear to the whole thing.
For younger kids, this may be a problem. But Spike and Dave Egger's ambitious script earns its PG certificate, introducing mild destruction, anger, and even a heap of decaying bones, perhaps belonging to previous visitors to the Wild Things' home. So when Max is crowned their King, it's a role of responsibility, tinged with danger. At first, he brings fun to their lives, promising happiness for all, but soon discovers the weight that hangs on his tiny head.
Unlike Sendak's 20 sentence book, here each of the Wild Things have names and neuroses. Carol (Gandolfini) is reckless and destructive, KW (Ambrose) is reclusive, Alexander (Dano) needy and Judith (O'Hara) pessimistic. But true to their creation, they're all untamed beasts, leaping from happiness to envy to rage in a few moments; more than anything else, though, these creatures are sad.
Sure, they all represent bits of Max's personality, but the shallow Freudian approach isn't trying to be clever or intellectual. It's trying to be honest. And by heck, it is. Jonze and Eggers tenderly explore the complex relationships between ourselves and those around us without pandering to kids, parents, or money-making studios. No wonder Warner Bros were reputedly perplexed by the end result - this is one of the most unique (and morose) family films ever made. And it's brilliant.
Amidst the gentle simplicity of one-on-one conversations, there are still bursts of excitement and action. Running, jumping and throwing things around, these monsters lob dirt clods at each other's heads with rampant glee. Still, things and people get hurt, echoing Max's earlier isolation. And you can see it in their faces - huge furry clumps of cuteness, the giant costumed actors are delicately embellished with CGI expressions. Bringing their pain and joy vividly to life, it's like viewing a herd of 9ft sentient Jaffa Cakes; they're soft, bitter and a little bit orange.
Wandering from beach to tree, the Wild Things take in the breathless cinematography and beautiful production design. "All this used to be rock,” Carol tells Max, strolling through a sedate desert. "Then it turned to sand, then it will turn to dust. I'm not sure what comes after dust." Dark in tone but light in visuals, this is a place of kinetic camerawork and jumpy frames, a lo-fi indie look around a mainstream map; bathed in glowing sunlight, Jonze's vision matches Maurice's illustrations to the minutest brushstroke. It's a real pleasure to watch, but even better to feel. Spike argues: "I didn’t set out to make a children’s movie; I set out to make a movie about childhood". With this vast world of simple emotions, it's fair to say he succeeded.
A sad feel-good movie, Where the Wild Things Are is a wonderful piece of childlike art. Moving, earnest and incredible.
- james gandolfini
- maurice sendak
- picture book
- spike jonze
- where the wild things are