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Where the Wild Things Are

Reviewed By Mel Valentin
Posted 10/16/09 05:09:51

"And for his third film, Spike Jonze co-writes and directs a masterpiece."
5 stars (Awesome)

The much-delayed, but still much-anticipated "Where the Wild Things," director Spike Jonze ("Adaptation,' "Being John Malkovich") and co-screenwriter Dave Eggers’ ("Away We Go," "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius") cinematic adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s 1964 Caldecott Medal-winning children’s book, finally arrives in multiplexes everywhere. A $100 million personal/art film, "Where the Wild Things" is unlikely to recoup Warner Bros. investment in the near term (i.e., domestic and foreign box office, ancillaries), but cult status is all but guaranteed for its imaginative world-building (mostly shot in Australia), emotionally resonant characterizations, evocative themes, and seamless combination of live-action puppetry (care of the Jim Henson Company) and CG (computer animation) to create the unforgettable Wild Things of the title.

Where the Wild Things centers on Max (Max Records), an emotionally troubled boy trying to navigate the shifting rapids of a newly reconfigured family life. The world, his world, seems to have turned against him and he doesn’t know why. He feels powerless to change anything (because, ultimately, he is), but can't articulate his feelings into words, only anger and frustration. Max broods over father’s absence, the attention his mother (Catherine Kenner) gives to her new boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo), and his teenage sister Claire’s (Pepita Emmerichs) indifference. When he starts a snowball fight with his sister and her stoner friends, he ends up in tears, abandoned and alone. He responds by dumping bucketfuls of water in her bedroom. After slipping into his wolf suit, he catches his mother kissing her boyfriend, throws a temper tantrum, and runs away (rather than being sent to his room, which transforms into a jungle, as in Sendak's book).

Max finds an abandoned sailboat on the river near his home and sails away. Nights and days seem to pass. He spots an island in the distance and on the island a fire and when he approaches the fire, the Wild Things, monstrous creatures from Max's Id that exist in dreams, nightmares, or in a fantasy world. The round-faced, round-bellied Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini), leads the other Wild Things, the shaggy-haired, tri-horned Judith (Catherine O'Hara), the bulbous-nosed Ira (Forest Whitaker), the rooster-faced Douglas (Chris Cooper), goat-boy Alexander (Paul Dano), and the Bull (Michael Berry Jr.), in the destruction of their nest-like huts. When the other Wild Things hesitate, Max steps from the shadows and helps Carol destroy another hut. While Carol takes an instant liking to Max, the others don’t. Only Max’s talent for storytelling saves him from being devoured. Max claims he's a king from a far away land and by leap of Wild Thing illogic becomes their king. Later, K.W. (Lauren Ambrose), a Wild Thing estranged from the group, returns, if only temporarily.

Jonze and Eggers gave the Wild Things sharply drawn, neurotic personalities. Like Max, Carol has anger management issues. Judith describes herself as a downer (she's right). Ira seems terrified of thinking for himself (that's what Judith's for). Alexander suffers from functional invisibility. The Bull never speaks, except in snorts and grunts. Douglas is the most reasonable Wild Thing and, thus, the least powerful of the Wild Things. He's the voice of reason in a maelstrom of wildness. They’re childlike, prone to rapid changes of minds and allegiances, and even more rapid, violent mood swings, mood swings made all the more destructive by their size and strength. The Wild Things live lives children everywhere dream about (but rarely achieve): the can do what they want when they want, unencumbered by parental figures. The Wild Things have freedom without responsibility. They pass on the responsibility for their well-being to their self-declared king, Max or Carol, who’s more than willing to pass the caretaker role to Max.

Where the Wild Things Are raises subtle questions about parenting, families, and friendships (especially friendships among children). Parents provide (or are expected to provide) children with their material and emotional needs, if not their wants, but they also exert complete control over their children who, in turn, assert themselves prove their (temporary) independence from the giants who, from their perspective, rule their lives arbitrarily and capriciously. And Max, having abandoned one family for another, finds a different set of difficulties. He’s no longer the child, even if he’s still acts like one. He’s the responsible “adult,” expecting to provide for his new, monstrous family. Max tries to make sense of the fissures, contradictions, and conflicts in his new family, but comes to realize what he’s lost by abandoning his family.

Jonze and Eggers go further, however, by exploring the risks inherent in authoritarianism. The Wild Things are eager for a leader to give them direction and purpose. Max wants freedom and thinks he has it when it joins the Wild Things, but he quickly learns that the Wild Things hold their new king responsible for bringing them happiness. For the Wild Things, happiness isn’t an internal state of mind, but an external state of being. For the Wild Things, happiness, however vaguely defined, is something received from others, not something earned or achieved on your own, a sentiment Carol verbalizes repeatedly and that gives Where the Wild Things a dangerous undercurrent. If Max doesn’t bring happiness to the unhappy Wild Things, bad things will happen (to Max).

After a near-disastrous, near-legendary preview of Jonze’s rough cut two years ago, Warner Bros. seriously considered taking "Where the Wild Things Are" away from Jonze. Executives considered Jonze’s early cut too dark, too adult, not the children’s film they expected (they were, for once, right). "Where the Wild Things Are" may be too intense for children under 10 (but adventurous 9-year olds will find a way to see it somehow, someway) and will likely disappoint moviegoers who prefer conventional, family-oriented (i.e., goal-oriented, neutered, safe) fantasy film. "Where the Wild Things Are" isn’t a children’s film. It’s a film about childhood (for adults). And Max’s experiences aren’t, as some might suspect, particular to men who were once nine-year old boys. Regardless of age or gender, anyone can identify, sympathize, and empathize with Max’s experiences and Jonze evocative, original work of (commercial) art.

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