sat 20/07/2024

Where the Wild Things Are | reviews, news & interviews

Where the Wild Things Are

Where the Wild Things Are

Spike Jonze walks on the wild side

Maurice Sendak's children's tale given an acute, smart CGI dress by Spike Jonze

Beware the ids of kids: Where the Wild Things Are, Spike Jonze's film of Maurice Sendak's seminal children's picture book, centres on a hyperactive nine-year-old boy, Max (Max Records), who’s so angered and frustrated by the reverses of a winter's day that he destroys a keepsake he gave his adolescent sister and ends up biting his single mother (Catherine Keener) while she’s entertaining her boyfriend at home.

This first and best section of the movie sets up Max’s voyage that night to a faraway land occupied by a handful of huge two-footed beasts who speak in urban Americanese, are apparently middle-aged neurotics, and wreck and throw things as eagerly as Max, whom they soon name king.

Wild_Things_Sendak_Sendak’s slim, resonant book, published in 1963, makes it clear that Max’s adventure is a dream by having a forest grow in his room after he’s sent to bed for angrily telling his mom he would eat her up; from there, he sets sail and disembarks on the Wild Things’ country or island. Perhaps to distance the story from the dream structure, Jonze and screenwriter Dave Eggers first send the tyke, dressed in his wolf suit, running uncontrollably onto the street and into a wood where he finds the shore and the boat, but the film depicts a dream no less. It’s accordingly over-determined.

The seven Wild Things variously manifest or give voice to different emotions that Max experiences during the frantic first 15 minutes, not only rage, but sadness, loneliness, and a feeling of betrayal. Aspects of Max’s physical reaiity are also echoed during his adventure: in the prologue, Max builds an igloo that’s crushed (with him in it) by one of his sister’s friends; later he sees the Wild Things smashing their huge huts and visits a model mountainscape they’ve built - before and after one of them, Carol (voice by James Gandolfini), destroys it offscreen. Meanwhile, a snowball fight Max instigates at home is echoed by the Wild Things’ clod fight.

Both the most evolved and regressive of the Wild Things - which were created through costumes, puppetry and CGI - Carol is the one with whom Max identifies. He carries with him a sense of loss, not only for his faded friendship with the gentle, philosophical KW (voice Lauren Ambrose) but for the closeness of the group that enabled them to build the model - Max obviously misses the father he only sees at weekends and the togetherness of his family. Carol has repressed his anger to the point of instability, and the moment when he takes it out on the giant bird Douglas (voice Chris Cooper) is shocking: it leads to the film’s funniest (and blackest) sight gag.

As Max’s sojourn with the Wild Things wears on he begins to tire of their company and gaze longingly over the sea to where Mom is. We may find ourselves tiring of them, too. Where the Wild Things Are is an ambitious film and commendable for its original handling of a complex subject, but it suffers from the lugubriousness of its anthropomorphic dysfunctional family, seemingly modelled by Sendak on his own relatives. As well as Carol, there is the kvetching warthog-like Judith (voice Catherine O’Hara) and the perceptive but downtrodden goat Alexander (voice Paul Dano). They enjoy themselves when they are smashing their huts, ripping hunks out of trees, and sleeping in a big furry pile, but not one of them is inspirational, which makes the film a tough sell for children.

Still, they should get along with Max, who balances his tantrums with joy and mischief. He is one of the most psychologically accurate portraits of a child in American cinema for years, and Records makes him authentic. By the time Max parts from the Wild Things, without an oversentimental farewell, we sense that in leaving them behind he is leaving the country of his early childhood - has discovered his superego, in fact - and is ready for the perils and traps of pre-teendom.

  • Where the Wild Things Are opens on 11 December
Max is one of the most psychologically accurate portraits of a child in American cinema for years

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