Boy Meets World Within
Spike Jonze's adaptation of Maurice Sendak's ten-sentence classic Where the Wild Things Are is profoundly evocative of childhood angst, formally brilliant, and, here's the rub, unlikely to beguile moviegoers who don't wish to be challenged. Anyone expecting carefree entertainment or gimmicky thrills should look elsewhere. After all, this is a movie by the director of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. While hardly a labyrinthine concept piece, there's no coddling going on in the immersive live-action film. Like a dream, it's both eerily matter-of-fact and fantastical, affording the audience time in a strange yet familiar world of pure affect where elemental childlike feelings blend with harsher realities normally associated with adulthood.
The script by Jonze and novelist Dave Eggers is spare and inscrutable, offering a sophisticated vision couched in naturalistic dialogue (key lines from Sendak's beloved book are repeated verbatim) and carried along by hypnotic imagery. Jonze runs the risk of presenting a movie so transfixing it will lull people to sleep; he's betting its poetic resonance will hook viewers accustomed to action and spectacle coated with pretend spontaneity. The mood he creates is like a childhood reverie -- a couple of hours a chagrined kid might spend first pouting and then daydreaming in his room. Though it may not captivate, it strikes me as only marginally darker than its source. Whether it has depth can only be determined through acts of interpretation and not everyone will be motivated to offer one.
We meet a boy in suburbia wearing a wolf suit and wrestling with his dog -- playing out of loneliness and boredom and because that is what children do. Max (portrayed by Max Records) makes an igloo in the snowy front yard and initiates a brief snowball fight with his teenage sister's friends. When they wreck his igloo, he trashes her room, ripping a craft heart he once made for her, angry she didn't defend him. Lying in his bed sad and regretful, he tells his single mom (Catherine Keener) what happened; she's sympathetic, though not pleased about the mess he made in his sibling's room.
At school, Max's science teacher warns his students about the impending demise of our sun and solar system in a comically ominous aside. That night, having donned his wolf suit again, Max watches his mom entertain her boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo) in the living room. Perhaps motivated by jealousy, Max has an outburst, bites his mother and bolts out the door. He runs down the street and leaps into a small sailboat that transports him to a rugged island. Climbing craggy cliffs under a full moon, he makes his way toward a fire and voices. There he encounters wild things a la Jonze and company. Furry creatures with human traits, his new acquaintances are voiced by James Gandolfini, Catherine O'Hara, Lauren Ambrose, Forrest Whitaker, Paul Dano, and Chris Cooper.
Max is promptly crowned their king and what transpires during his stay on the island mirrors what can happen within any social group, such as a family, school class, or community. There's dissension and miscommunication, followed by attempts to heal and bridge differences. Max proposes building a big fort, which his closest friend Carol (Gandolfini) hopes is a place where "nothing happens that you don't want to have happen." There's much ludic roughhousing in the form of dog-piles, dirt-clod fights and silly displays of strength. Max is simultaneously parent and child; he learns that kids have no monopoly on immaturity. Expected to make everything all right, he wisely high-tails it when revolution breaks out, arriving back home to a loving mother offering soup, cake and a glass of milk.
The look of Where the Wild Things Are is hauntingly simple. The choice to forgo elaborate special effects and use costumes and puppetry designed by the Jim Henson shop -- enhanced by CGI facial expressions and superb voice work by a well-chosen cast -- pays dividends beyond underscoring the message that the wildest things live in our own minds. That sounds like a cliché, but Jonze and Eggers dare to suggest it isn't de facto a comforting one. Yes, the idea that we manufacture our worst fears is useful for allaying night terrors about monsters under the bed and when assuring a boy his older sister really does love him. However, it also allows for the possibility that the boy may be or become a "monster" and that there's a chance his older sibling is full of hate.
Like any other child, Max has the capacity to do harm and be an agent of negativity as much as he does to be a positive force. As I read the movie version of Where the Wild Things Are, childlike innocence is shown to be a chimera. We must be as wary of the youthful imagination as we are protective of it. A child's anxieties and the creative powers they generate are no less potent than those of an adult. They can take us toward the idyllic or the horrific. Every act of make-believe isn't automatically harmless.
(Released by Warner Bros. Pictures and rated "PG" for mild thematic elements, some adventure action and brief language.)