REVIEW: ‘Where the Wild Things Are’

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Grade: B

In a press release for his latest film, Where the Wild Things Are, Spike Jonze said it “isn’t a child’s movie, it is a movie about childhood.” With this information on hand before I entered the theatre, I immediately felt sorry for the rows of children eagerly awaiting their favorite picture book being brought to life on screen. With Jones directing and Dave Eggers screenwriting I assumed the film would be too surreal and deep for children to truly appreciate. My pity for these youths dissipated, however, as the movie began and the splendid visceral nature of the film became a treat for the wildest imagination.

Indeed, Where the Wild Things Are is one of the most visually inventive films of the year. Jones, along with production designer K.K. Barrett and cinematographer Lance Acord, combines realistic and fantastical elements to create a world that build’s on the one from Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book (or should I say “book about childhood”) from 1963. The mystical world is certainly no Land of Oz, but it is an escape for the protagonist right into his own imagination – complete with darkness and light.

Jonze’s film attempts to build on the themes so expertly laid out by Sendak in the original story (which has fewer than 400 words total). Despite the brief 94 minute runtime, it suffers from a lack of narrative and even the gorgeous visuals are not enough to keep you interested at certain points. However, the visual and intellectual poem that Jonze strings together on film is a fine one to behold and can be enjoyed by anybody who has a wild side.

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The film begins with the protagonist Max tearing around his house and playfully terrorizing his dog. Max has all the pent up energy of a confined young boy with a lot of imagination and not enough outlets. After a playful confrontation with his big sister Claire’s friends turns into getting bullied, Max goes wild on Claire’s room, spreading snow and jumping on the bed. Echoing a theme present in the movie, Max immediately regrets his impulsive decision and with the help of his caring, but distracted mother he cleans up the mess.

It’s not long before the pent up energy in Max gets re-released and after a confrontation with his mother in which he bites her, he leaves. Rather than being sent to his room without his supper, like in the book, Max tears off through the streets and into the woods where he comes across a boat in an endless sea. He sails for days into his imagination until he comes to an island inhabited by a half-dozen large creatures, known as “Wild Things.” In an exhibition of childhood fantasy, Max becomes king of the Wild Things and as his first order of business declares a wild rumpus to be in order.

The Wild Things are each given their own individuality in this story each brilliantly voiced by a cast of stars. The most recognizable character is the impulsive, naïve, and unintentionally violent Carol, voiced by James Gandolfini in one of the most unusual, yet brilliant casting decisions. Other characters include the fleeing KW ( Lauren Ambrose), the loyal Douglas (Chris Cooper), the gloomy Judith (Catherine O’Hara), the neurotic Alexander (Paul Dano), the entrepreneurial Ira (Forest Whitaker), and the mostly silent Bull (Michael Berry, Jr.).

Max soon realizes that he has traded one dysfunctional family for another as the Wild Things squabble about sleeping arrangements, relationships, and share of the work load – incredibly human problems. Each of the Wild Things holds many of the same fears that Max has and in a sense, it’s the worst of their characteristics that makes Max truly miss his home. King is not a position that Max was ready for and he must return to his home to re-assert his status in his household.

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The film runs into some narrative hiccups as the post-rumpus deterioration of Max’s kingdom unfolds slowly, with a pace that shows how “not a child’s movie” it is. The neuroticism of many of the characters gets a bit repetitive as the film progresses and at times it seems I was waiting for them to hop on a psychiatrist’s couch and talk about their problems.

However, where the film succeeds is in the intelligence that Spike Jonze has behind the camera. The film is shot from a child’s perspective, often looking up at the Wild things and the world around Max and using the shaky cam whenever Max is in motion. Jonze and cinematographer Lance Acord capture the world of the Wild Things with the same combination of grace and chaos as they use to capture the real world, creating a feeling of never ceasing imagination.

Newcomer Max Record’s performance as the protagonist is one of the most naturalistic and impressive of the year. He’s a child, through and through and his never ceasing playfulness is fun in every frame. His performance is supported by one of the best soundtracks of the year composed by Carter Burwell and Karen O. of indie-rock band the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. If there is any soundtrack worth purchasing this year, this collaboration deemed “Karen O. and the Kids” would be it.

Bottom Line: Where the Wild Things Are seems most appropriate for a casual matinee on a rainy autumn day. And unless you want to answer a barrage of questions afterwards, I might suggest to leave the kids at home.

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  • I still haven’t seen it. I’m waiting for the crowds to die down. I’m sorry it wasn’t quite as good as you were expecting.

  • Haha, it’s all right – I put the film on too high of a pedestal before it’s release, which is always risky to do.

  • Jake

    I don’t think this movie could have ever lived up to its trailer. When the striking visuals are condensed into the short preview and paired with that awesome Arcade Fire song it packs a punch that couldn’t be sustained for even 90 minutes.

    I loved parts of the movie and was completely bored by other parts. But while watching it I got the feeling that it would probably be one of those movies that gets better with subsequent viewings, so I’m excited to see it again.

  • Jake :

    …while watching it I got the feeling that it would probably be one of those movies that gets better with subsequent viewings, so I’m excited to see it again.

    Totally agree.

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