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6 reviews, 20 user ratings

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Where the Wild Things Are
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by Peter Sobczynski

"It Made My Heart Sing"
5 stars

It is worth noting that when Maurice Sendak first published his children’s story “Where the Wild Things Are” in 1963, it was not immediately embraced as the classic of the genre that it would eventually become. Oh sure, it received plenty of critical raves and won the prestigious Caldecott Medal for kid-related literature in 1964 but when it first hit shelves, it raised the hackles of many parents, teachers and librarians who complained that the tale was too dark, too strange and neglected to offer its readers the kind of clear-cut lessons about obeying parents or flossing after every meal that were considered to be an essential part of any story aimed at children. What finally put it over the top was the fact that when kids did get their hands on it, the story spoke to them in a direct and immediate manner--possibly because it was dark, strange and neglected to offer its readers the kind of clear-cut lessons about obeying parents or flossing after every meal--without speaking down to them. Now the eagerly awaited screen adaptation of Sendak’s tale from director Spike Jonze has finally arrived and I have the sneaky suspicion that history may repeat itself--parents and other authority figures (especially those who were successfully kept from the book during their own childhoods) may deem it too dark, weird and off-putting for the delicate sensibilities of their offspring, who are presumably better served in their minds with the likes of “G-Force,” while younger viewers may embrace it for those very reasons. If this proves to be the case, then it will once again prove that kids are, in many ways, smarter and more astute than their elders because the film is pretty close to being an instant masterpiece--a one-of-a-kind marvel that not only manages to bring a beloved classic to the screen in a manner that perfectly captures the spirit of the book but expands and build on the themes of the original story (pretty much a necessity since Sendak’s version consists of only a handful of sentences totaling only a little over 300 words) in ways that are both enormously engaging and strikingly powerful.

The film stars newcomer Max Records as Max, a nine-year-old boy of a type who is common enough in real life but one rarely seen in movies. Instead of being the well-scrubbed type with a cute smile and a glib quip for every occasion, he is filled with a nervous and sometimes wild energy, bored with school, possessed with an overactive imagination and filled with unresolved feelings about his parents recent divorce that express themselves in massive mood swings and violent lashings-out at a world and emotions that he is still too young to fully understand. One night, while his mother (Catherine Keener) is trying to spend a quiet evening at home with her new boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo), Max lets those emotions get the better of him and, clad in his treasured white-wolf costume, explodes in a bratty rage that finds him climbing upon the kitchen counter and screaming “WOMAN--FEED ME” before biting Mom on the arm and running off into the darkness. After wandering around the nearby woods for a while, he finds a boat and sets sail and eventually winds up on a faraway island that appears to be deserted until he comes upon a group of fearsome-looking beasts, one of whom, Carol (James Gandolfini), is in the process of smashing up their huts for no good reason.

Max is eventually discovered and while Carol intuits that there is something special about the intruder, most of the others--Douglas (Chris Cooper), Judith (Catherine O’Hara), Ira (Forest Whitaker) and Alexander (Paul Dano)--are more content with the idea of simply eating him. Thinking fast and recognizing that there doesn’t appear to be any real authority figure among them, Max introduces himself as an honest-to-goodness king and is quickly accepted by the others as their leader. Once in charge, Max makes an announcement to “Let the Wild Rumpus Start!” and everyone engages in joyful roughhousing while he and Carol further cement their friendship. It can’t last forever, however, and once everyone begins to settle down, brought about by the return of the calmer and more nurturing K.W. (Lauren Ambrose), it begins to occur to Max that these creatures are just as prone to strange and inexplicable emotions as the people that he has just fled--Carol in particular begins flying into wild and destructive rages when things don’t go exactly the way that he wants in regards to his relationships with both Max and K.W.--and it is this realization that allows him to begin to finally understand the feelings that have been overwhelming him as well.

Even though the first feature film project that Spike Jonze was hired to direct was an eventually scuttled version of the equally beloved children’s classic “Harold & the Purple Crayon,” the idea of the director of such audacious works as “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation” being given the reins of a hoped-for blockbuster adaptation of a property as famous as “Where the Wild Things Are” sounds almost too bizarre to be true. Whatever the instincts were for hiring him in the first place, they turned out to be correct because I cannot think of another filmmaker, especially one working today, who could have done justice to the story in the way that he has here. Visually, the film is as striking and eye-popping as one might expect--using the coastline of southern Australia as his setting and performers decked out in enormous costumes that have been seamlessly overlaid with CGI facial expressions designed to mimic the previously recorded vocal tracks, Jonze has simply and effectively brought the world of the Wild Things to life in such a way that you immediately accept it as a real and tangible place instead of simply the product of an overactive production designer.

And yet, as astounding as all of that is, that is actually the kind of stuff that most filmmakers could have achieved if they set their minds to it. The real challenge of a film like this is figuring out a way of telling a compelling story in such a way so that the visual aspect doesn’t overwhelm the rest of the proceedings. In his previous films, Jonze has demonstrated a wonderful ability to do just that and, with the help of co-writer Dave Eggers, he does it again here. Instead of padding out the story with silly quests and unnecessary subplots, they have retained the mostly plotless structure of the original tale and have instead expanded on Sendak’s exploration of children and anger by using Max’s adventures to quietly and effectively demonstrate the ways in which kids use fantasy to help them process and understand feelings that they can’t quite grasp otherwise. As a result, some naysayers may complain about the lack of any real plot or incident in the film. To that, I would simply respond that any movie can feature a plot--hell, even a piece of garbage like “Law-Abiding Citizen” has a plot--but very few have been able to mine and understand the inchoate nature of childhood behavior in the subtle and nuanced way that Jonze and Eggers have done here and it is that aspect that I believe that kids, consciously or not, will find themselves responding to in a big way.

Adding immensely to the reality and gravity of the film is the amazing performance delivered by Max Records as Max. Actually, I am not so sure that “performance” is really the proper word to describe what he does here because that conjures up thoughts of a well-trained kid hitting every one of his marks and reciting his lines with laser-like precision. I am sure that Records is doing all of that here but the difference here is that he does them in such a natural and unaffected way that it appears for all intents and purposes that Jonze is just catching the off-the-cuff activities and behaviors of a real kid. There is a scene early on in which Max picks a snowball fight with some of the friends of his older sister that is all rambunctious fun and games until one of them winds up crush Max’s beloved snow fort in the melee--his instantaneous shift from glee to utter despair is so effortless and so touching that it will instantly plunge older viewers to the very moments in their own lives when something similar occurred to them. That sense of naturalism also extends to his scenes opposite the creatures--even the most extensively trained actor might have trouble with performing scenes opposite people in giant costumes while listening to the recorded line readings of other actors but he makes that seem just as natural as the moments when he plays opposite flesh-and-blood people. Speaking of the things, the vocal cast may not be quite what many viewers had in mind when they first pictured a film version of the story but Jonze’s choice prove to be as inspired as everything else--all of the actors bring such life and emotion to the characters that after a couple of minutes, we forget who those voices belong to and simple accept them as the creatures.

“Where the Wild Things Are” is a bold and brilliant film that will appeal to viewers of all ages in a way that few such things ever do. It is one of those little wonders of the cinema in which pretty much every single aspect of the film, no matter how minor or how odd, just works in beautiful and wholly expected ways. Not only is it one of the best films of the year, it is almost certain to become one of those perennials that effortlessly pass from generation to generation because its appeal is utterly timeless. If you were to make a shortlist of the great family films of all time, it would include the likes of “The Wizard of Oz,” “The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T” and “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” It may seem a bit soon to say such a thing but I am confident that when such lists are made in the future, “Where the Wild Things Are” will have a secure place on them.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=18530&reviewer=389
originally posted: 10/16/09 00:00:00
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User Comments

6/12/13 Marty An honest, unique look at childhood. elicits fear, exhilaration, escape. Artful and emotive 5 stars
6/09/10 Rochelle Norlund I love it and love scenes that has Carol and Max, and wish for a sequel of this movie. 5 stars
5/08/10 Dr.Lao When you've outgrown the book, this movie makes a wonderful adjunct 5 stars
12/15/09 girl almost perfect-o 5 stars
12/02/09 Shawn This movie was raw, furious and poignant, just as real life is. Great job to all! 5 stars
11/03/09 Anonymous I loved this. 5 stars
11/03/09 Kurtis A wonderful look into the mind of an 8 year old. Brilliant and beautiful! 5 stars
10/31/09 The GLC Beautiful, full of child like imagination and very human as well 5 stars
10/30/09 karamashi Utterly Fantastic. One of the Best films of the Year. 5 stars
10/25/09 Alex41 Psychologist Jerome Bruner argues that narrative engages us because it teaches us how to 5 stars
10/25/09 millersxing A more vulnerable approach to a timeless children's story adds greater emotional resonance. 5 stars
10/24/09 GanjaBoy33 In growing numbers, these leaders work hand-in- glove with community partners, families, st 3 stars
10/24/09 BadGirl91 Finally, and most importantly, by law, ESDC is obligated to afford condemnees a formal oppo 2 stars
10/23/09 Arnold21 Once the chapbook came out, I had no urge to continue searching for a home for Cackling Jac 3 stars
10/23/09 R.W. Welch Visually remarkable. Story line sags in spots. B- 4 stars
10/22/09 Ganry58 Countries like Japan and South Korea grew their economies while maintaining distinct cultur 3 stars
10/20/09 Rob More movies should be made like this; or more movies like this should be made. 5 stars
10/19/09 g. well done. 4 stars
10/19/09 Jared Horrible movie... I'd love to know what drug you have to be on to enjoy it. 2 stars
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  16-Oct-2009 (PG)
  DVD: 02-Mar-2010


  DVD: 02-Mar-2010

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