Where The Wild Things Are
- Directed by Spike Jonze
- Written by Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers
- Starring Max Records, James Gandolfini and Catherine O'Hara
- Classification: PG
Wild Things, you do not make my heart sing. Spike Jonze's film version of Maurice Sendak's 1963 children's classic, Where the Wild Things Are, is less an adaptation of its source material than a therapeutic response to it.
Sendak's book is a witty and concise (338 words) allegory about a high-spirited five-year-old's rage, fantasy and ultimate mastery childhood emotions. The Jonze movie, co-written by novelist Dave Eggers ( A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius ) is an exploration of childhood sorrow. It's about an emotionally neglected nine-year-old (Max Records) who exhibits behaviour problems as he witnesses his parents' divorce. Forget about Max's cry to let the wild rumpus start. This feels more like: "Let the grief-counselling ensue."
Not that Jonze could be faulted for any inconsistencies in his approach. The movie could even be called visionary, inasmuch as it's the product of a strongly individualistic visual and narrative style. Jonze, who directed Being John Malkovich and Adaptation from Charlie Kauffman's scripts, is a specialist at solipsistic reveries. Eggers shares Jonze's preciousness, as does the soundtrack by indie rock star Karen O.
To begin the film, Jonze is on harder, realistic territory, shooting handheld family psychodrama. The angelic-looking Max lives in a suburban home with his overworked single mother (Catherine Keener) and an adolescent older sister who has no time for him. When his sister's friends trash his snow fort, Max angrily retaliates by wrecking the things in her room. Initially, his mother consoles him. When she brings home a date (Mark Ruffalo), Max dons his wolf suit, talks back, climbs on the table and finally bites his mother's shoulder in anger. As she sobs hysterically, he runs out of the house into the winter night.
Soon, he comes to the edge of some water where a boat is waiting to take him to island of generic fantastic landscapes - mountains, deserts and forests. There he finds a half-dozen Wild Things, monsters that have some relationship to the stuffed animals in Max's bedroom. The puppets are massive and hand-made and as gnarly-looking as ancient relatives, with digitally changeable facial expressions. Unlike the book, they're also talkative, with voices of actors James Gandolfini, Paul Dano, Catherine O'Hara, Forest Whitaker, Michael Berry and Chris Cooper. They're also conscienceless and destructive, ready to devour Max just because he's small and available. But Max, practised in making up stories for his mother, convinces the creatures he has secret powers and is declared King of the Wild Things.
After declaring the tree-shaking wild rumpus, he crashes and wakes in a furry monster pile. Now it's time for Max to start to accept responsibility and watching the film begins to feel like heavy lifting. This is not exactly the monument to self-pity of Kauffman's Synecdoche, New York , but there are similarities.
In Wild Things ' biggest departure from the book, the creatures aren't just symbols of feelings; they're full of enough anxieties, jealousy and fears for an Ingmar Bergman drama. "Will you keep out all the sadness?" one asks Max after he's named King.
Carol (Gandolfini) is both the warmest and most violent of the creatures, which is amusing casting (who would want Tony Soprano for an Id?). But the creatures generally seem less physically threatening than those in Sendak's book. The scariest character, from a mental-health perspective, may be O'Hara's Judith, who persistently insinuates that Max is a fraud and a poor leader.
After engaging the creatures in a giant make-work project, Max turns into a parent himself, frightened and worried when his creatures get out of control. With this life-lesson learned, it's time for him to sail home from Where the Serotonin-Challenged Things Are.
Who, exactly, is this self-consciously sad film for? Possibly it's aimed at adults who, remembering the book from their childhoods, may see this retelling as a parable about childhood loss. If they need relief from the lugubrious funk left by the movie, a renewed acquaintance with Sendak's boisterous book should do the trick.