2009 | Director: Spike Jonze (“Being John Malkovich”) | Writers: Jonze and Dave Eggers (“Away We Go”)
Maurice Sendak’s beloved children’s book “Where the Wild Things Are” is a sparse, quick read, but it’s also so unusual a tale of childhood anger and so lushly detailed in its illustrations that it becomes ripe with allegorical potential upon repeat reading. It’s really no wonder, then, that Spike Jonze’s film version is the rare adaptation that significantly expands upon its source, presenting a surprisingly mature examination of Sendak’s loose themes within an even looser framework than the author used. But even if it were stripped of its considerable analytical depth, Jonze’s “Wild Things” would flat-out impress with its sheer visual inventiveness.
The story follows Max (played by future music label executive Max Records), a child whose one-parent family (led by working mom Catherine Keener) quickly fails to satiate the imaginative youth’s somewhat-angry need for attention. He runs off in a rage–and in a wolf costume–one night, soon finding himself on an island inhabited by the titular monsters (those voiced by Forrest Whitaker and Chris Cooper among them), who are standing by nervously as their de facto leader, Carol (voiced wonderfully by James Gandolfini) smashes their forest homes in his own rather calculated fury. Max joins in, impressing Carol and the others, who make him their king, an act that brings the dysfunctional group of creatures together for a while as Max leads them in grand schemes and games that promise much more than he can fulfill.
The most brilliant aspect of “Wild Things” is the way in which each monster represents a different part of Max’s psyche, from the unbridled aggression and irritating neediness of Carol, to the repressed and lonely Alexander (voiced by Paul Dano), both of whom are in need of a father figure as much as Max himself, though there is a passive-aggressive mother figure of sorts in Judith (Catherine O’Hara) and a sisterly monster named KW (Lauren Ambrose) whose yearning to move on and find new friends causes division within the family (mirroring Max’s real-life sibling). There isn’t much of a plot once Max reaches the island, but one could watch this film a dozen times and still not yet catch every tumbling, complicated interaction between Max and monster.
In this way “Wild Things” succeeds famously, because every stunning visual, every simple line of dialogue, is filtered through the eyes of a kid Max’s age, colored with wonder, judgment-clouding excitement, and, overwhelmingly, sadness–and all that without writer Dave Eggers spelling any trite morals or placing overt plot points to signify character change. It’s an exemplary screenplay to say the least.
That said, I almost feel that it’s not a movie for kids–not because of any content issues, but because Max’s angry loneliness is pervasive and infectious, pushed along by a jarring score by Karen O. and Carter Burwell, and now and again tinged by frightening moments, such as when Carol and the others nonchalantly try to conceal the child-sized bones of past kings from an almost-oblivious Max. It’s a little much for the pre-high school set, but as a sort of Freudian retrospective, it’s one of the more moving and unsettling films in recent years, and undoubtedly the year’s best at this point in time. Highly recommended.
Rating: Four and a Half of Five Stars