Sunday, October 18, 2009


There are two very important pieces of business that I must get out of the way before I can start my review of Spike Jonze's new film Where The Wild Things Are.

1. Anybody who says this movie is bad, boring, Juno with puppets, or that nothing happens just doesn't get it, they never will so don't argue with them.

2. This is not an adaptation of the book and it's being horribly misrepresented in the marketing campaign.

Okay, with that understood let's press on with the review. Where The Wild Things Are is a fascinating work because it succeeds even when it fails. In other words the failures of the film are like the holes in a boy's imagination so it plays right along with the entire fable by making it all seem like a story made up as it went along. Director Spike Jonze has created a film that doesn't feel like adult movie wizards reproducing a child's fantasy nor does it feel like childhood remembered through the eyes of adults who tend to get overly nostalgic for it. This is childhood entirely through the eyes of a child with all the bumps, bruises, incredible creatures and confusing dark times that come with it. Though filled with monsters and forts Where The Wild Things Are is a more realistic movie about being a kid than any film in the last ten years.

The original Where The Wild Things Are book (written by Maurice Sendak) consisted of incredible pictures and ten sentences. In the book the boy Max is sent to his room for "making mischief" and a huge jungle with incredible creatures grows out of it. Max makes himself the king and runs around with the Wild Things until he becomes homesick and returns to his room to find supper waiting. The book is genius because it does in few words what so many books try to do with sentence upon sentence, it captures what it is to be a child. Trying to translate that story to film exactly would have felt a bit hollow because your imagination isn't there to fill in the blanks.

Knowing this Spike Jonze has decided to just tell a tale of a troubled childhood using the heart and characters of Maurice Sendak's original work. In the film Max is troubled and incredibly imaginative boy who is in a broken home with an overworked mother and a sister who is growing up and leaving him behind. Unable to deal with these realities Max (played incredibly by newcomer Max Records) acts out, driving everyone around him crazy. After one particular harsh run in with his mother (the always right on Catherine Keener) Max escapes into a boat and sails to a far away land where he meets the Wild Things.

What Jonze has done here is to inject the realities of childhood into Sendak's creation and really flesh out the story. Max's story is a messy one that goes from funny to melancholy to scary in an instant, just like the mind of a child. The creatures all represent various feelings that Max himself has but Jonze has smartly not assigned any one feeling to one creature. In other words there isn't an "angry" monster and a "sad" monster but instead creatures dominated by one personality but still able to pull of several others. For instance the monster Judith (voiced by Catherine O'Hara) is mostly negative, filled with doubt and paranoia but she can also be happy, funny and loving. The same is true of all the monsters, they are a real family born from Max's imagination not just caricatures.

When Max arrives and becomes the monster's king it's because they believe his lies, something that never happens to him in the real world. Max also finds a friend in Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini) who is the closest to his own personality. Watching Carol get angry, lash out, act juvenile and constantly fight with his monster sister CW (voiced by Lauren Ambrose) Max gets to see what he can be like without even realizing it. All of the monsters help Max see that in some way but without him understanding that's what's happening. Where as most films would make it a huge moral fable, Jonze allows the lessons to happen accidentally the way they usually do during childhood.

I was also impressed with how Jonze never made Max grow up too much, never gave him some silly moment where he stopped being a child and became a mini-adult in order to save the day. When relationship problems begin within the monsters Max tries to smooth it over by pretending. Build a fort, have a war, run around in a wild rumpus, because to him that's what will make things better.

It's not that Max is avoiding the problems, he literally thinks all the pretendinh will make these issues he can't resolve all better and when it doesn't he's crushed. Even when Max understands he needs to leave the Wild Things to go home he doesn't clearly understand why. Spike Jonze never allows the film to move from the perspective of a child, he never forces adult interests or morality on Max and that's what gives the film it's heart, integrity and allows it to keep the spirit of Maurice Sendak's book.

The film is also glorious to look at. I've never been one to toss the word glorious around but cinematographer Lance Acord gives me no other word. Each shot is masterfully planned out to not only be beautiful but to also feel like it's coming from the perspective or imagination of a child. Where The Wild Things Are never panders to it's audience, it doesn't give us easy answers or pat resolutions to things. You believe things will get better for Max but, like Max himself, you're not sure exactly why. Parents looking to take their kids to a Pixar movie with live action puppets are going to be really pissed when they walk out of this.

That's the reason the marketing is doing such a disservice to the movie. This is a movie ABOUT childhood it is NOT a child's movie. Childhood is scary, tense, messy while also being liberating and open to endless possibilities. Spike Jonze captures all of that with Where The Wild Things Are and that complete dedication to reality and truth may rub parents looking for eye candy to keep their kids quiet for two hours the wrong way. You'll also be pissed if you're looking for a straight adaptation because this is a story built from the bones of the book. Of course if you think a straight kids movie adaptation is what serves the book best then you didn't understand it to begin with.

There are flaws in this movie but like I said most of them seem in line with the holes in a child's story. The only two that really took me out of the movie were the soundtrack and the story of Max and his sister. Soundtrack wise the actual score is great but when Jonze starts filling scenes with hipster pop songs it feels wrong. A little boy doesn't think of background music featuring Karen O so why put it in the movie? As for the Max and his sister story I wish there had been one or two more scenes between them to strengthen that connection. Such a parallel is drawn between Max and his sister and monster siblings Carol and CW that you want to see more of where the scenario comes from. It's not a huge deal just something I would like to have seen developed a little more.

I found Where The Wild Things Are to be nothing but wonderful, a film that tugged on my heartstrings and made me remember what childhood was like. Not everybody will have that reaction because while Jonze has made a spectacular movie for all to see the film, at its heart, is a love letter to those of us broken home kids who used monsters, forts, pirates, dragons and whatever else we could to shield ourselves from a real world we felt uncomfortable and unwanted in.

I wish the marketing had been more along the lines of 500 Days Of Summer which went out of its way to make sure audiences understood this was not going to be a happy end love story but an actual story about being in love. That's the kind of adult marketing and buzz that Where The Wild Things Are needed. Despite all the ups and downs Where The Wild Things Are is a film that bucks the Hollywood system by being more substance than style, more content than flash. It has heart, integrity and lacks that typical Hollywood hipsters cynicism.

That alone deserves a loud monster howl.


  1. I can't wait to see it! I know a few mommies who were upset with it. I don't plan on taking Lukas (age 5). I showed him the preview and he wasn't in to it anyway. I've been waiting for this movie for a LONG time.

  2. I'm really thrilled with your opinion of this movie! I agree with you 90% - Rare! :)
    I have talked at length with other WTWTA-loving friends about why some people don't love this movie. We've decided it's those folks who can't suspend reality for 2 hours, those folks who are SO set on literal thinking that they just CAN'T get it. I'm so sad for them.

    I do disagree about the soundtrack/score. The instrumentals are perfect but I also love Karen O's work. I'm not a huge Yeahyeahyeah's fan but I appreciate what she does and ALL of the music she made for the film was original for this. And her work with the children's choir was both well done (not too heavy-handed) and appropriate I think. They COULD have really screwed it up and had all radio tunes (like the Arcade Fire in trailer - which worked for that but would have been wrong for the movie).

    You're right, GLORIOUS is the perfect world. The big beautiful scenes as well as the little points (like Max laying at his mother's feet in her office) that were ingenious I think Dave Eggars and Spike Jonze remember what it's like to be a kid - terrifying and wonderous. And yeah, Max Records made it.