Like many of you reading this, I remember being read Maurice Sendak’s award-winning book as a child. The sense of wonder in its 18-picture panels and enchantment in a ten-sentence fantasy reached an inner place where imagination blossomed and ran wild.
But nothing prepared me for Spike Jonze’s unique vision for Where the Wild Things Are, a moving experience unlike any other. Told with vivid, breathtaking visuals, the story speaks to and captures the whimsy and childlike fury of adolescence.
Living in a modern single-parent home, the misunderstood Max is a bundle of energy and emotion. He acts as a 9-year-old might: building forts, pretending the “floor is lava,” and pestering an older sibling for attention. An exhausted mother (Catherine Keener) spends a tender moment with him, but when she later cozies to a boyfriend it sends Max into a temper tantrum and running away into the night.
Clad in a wolf costume and wearing a petulant scowl, Max thrashes about in the woods before stumbling onto an abandoned sailboat. Re-enacting a make-believe session in his comfortable covers, he sets out on the rocky ocean away from the family he feels forgot him.
His adventure takes him to an island where he discovers (or imagines) seven monsters with unpredictable behavior and terrifying teeth. It isn’t long before Max has convinced them to make him king of the Wild Things and promises to make them all happy.
“Let the wild rumpus start!” he yells, heralding the beginning of dancing, howling, dogpiling, dirt fighting, fort building, and general silliness. Max especially bonds with Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini), a destructive outsider with a sweet, vulnerable center. Each treats the other like a pet, but more importantly a friend who understands the other’s isolation. Though he plays favorites, there’s a piece of Max in all of them and he’s able to learn the responsibilities and frustrations of family harmony.
The Wild Things are accomplished with 9-foot suits, stellar voice work, and CGI-rendered faces that allow for such touching interaction between the child and his inventions. But Max Records delivers an amazing performance for such a young actor and its his authentic expressions that anchor the surreal.
Jonze’s use of hand-held cameras and waist-high perspective make the encounters more intimate, and the ever-changing mood rises and falls with the melodies of an innocent soundtrack by Karen O. from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
Though it’s PG, the wonderful film may be lost on those younger than Max. The rambunctious Wild Things may be too rowdy and the mellow pacing too grown up for children who will no doubt be squirming by the time Max’s homesickness settles in. Where the Wild Things Are is for the kid in all of us, but it may not be for all kids.
4.5 out of 5.