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Thoughtful and sad, visually stunning but talky and messily personal, Where the Wild Things Are is the most grown-up childhood fantasy since E.T.
BY STEVEN D. GREYDANUS
Sendak’s poetic, luxuriantly illustrated Where the Wild Things Are
is revered as a childhood classic, but I think it speaks more powerfully to
grown-ups than to children, or at least children of the age for picture books.
I’ve met grown-ups who don’t like
it, but I suspect they wouldn’t have liked it as kids either. If kids do like
it, it may be that they grasp that there is something there they don’t quite understand, something waiting for them
on some future rereading.
the book’s youngest fans will make of Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are, I have no idea. It is such a different animal,
primal but thoughtful and sad, visually stunning but talky and messily personal
— the most grown-up childhood fantasy since E.T.
is nothing pat or pandering about it; it is like a story told by your uncle
that your mother wouldn’t approve of him telling, which is why he tells it —
and why you want to hear it and don’t want to at the same time.
film is enamored of the book, but not beholden to it. The film actually
jettisons the iconic scene in which wild young Max, sent to his room without
supper, watches his bedposts branch into trees and the walls recede as a forest
swallows his room.
Max (Max Records, 9 years old when shooting began) runs away into the night
into a forest, where he finds the boat that carries him away to Where the Wild
Wild Things themselves — an ideal blend of costume puppetry with computer-enhanced
facial expressions — look as if they burst from Sendak’s crosshatched pages,
and while they’re no less alarming than their literary counterparts, they’re
also more complicated and harder to manage.
is Max’s life. He still charges around the house in his beloved wolf suit
terrorizing the dog, building a blanket fort, and threatening to eat up his
loving but exasperated mother (Catherine Keener). On the other hand, his father
is absent (no explanation), his mother brings home her work troubles as well as
her new beau (Mark Ruffalo), and his teenaged sister (Pepita Emmerichs) lets
him down at a moment of unexpected calamity.
school, Max’s teacher muses alarmingly about the inevitable death of the sun,
and how it will take the Earth with it when it goes — though by then, he adds
uncomfortingly, humanity will likely have succumbed to some other disaster.
speech strikes a chord in Max’s psyche, and even the dominant Wild Thing — the
one with the sweater stripes and thatch of black hair, here named Carol and
voiced by James Gandolfini — is taken aback by the revelation of cosmic
mortality. Now there’s a wild thing to think about.
frets about the vast desert encroaching on the Wild Things’ forest, broodingly
observing that the sand used to be rocks and someday it will only be dust — and
what comes after dust?
added notion that the sun is dying compounds his anxiety. In Carol’s mind, it
rolls together with his other anxieties: KW — the Wild Thing with long red
hair, voiced by Lauren Ambrose — is off on her own; the group is falling apart;
their grandiose plans aren’t turning out as hoped … and now, on top of all
that, there’s the dying sun to worry about?
is imaginative, high-spirited but sensitive, and screenwriters Jonze and Dave Eggers
put you in his corner from the first scene. A snowball ambush starts playfully
but ends badly for Max, and then in his hurt and pique Max does something to
get even with his sister that can’t be undone. Both moments made me wince, not
because of what happens to Max physically, but because they pack the sting of a
white-hot childhood memory seared into your mind, a place in your psyche where
you are forever that distressed child.
wants escape, and the forest, the boat and the island of the Wild Things can be
seen as a flight into fantasy. But it’s not a fantasy of comforting wish
fulfillment. He finds the Things directionless and irascible, and most of them
initially want to eat him. In the book Max dominates the Things with the “magic
trick” of an unblinking stare, but in the film he has to convince them that his
magical powers are greater than that.
a hilarious fourth-grade volley of escalating boasts, the Things are willing to
contemplate making him their king. Carol, though, wants to know if his powers
are any good against sadness and loneliness. “I have a sadness shield,” Max
the realm of the Wild Things were wish fulfillment, the world itself would be
Max’s sadness shield, but it’s not that simple. Accordingly, Max and the Things
embark on an ambitious project to create a special place where “only things you
want to happen will happen” — a fantastic secret fortress, a world within their
world within a world, where perhaps they will find the “sadness shield” Max
Things are potent symbols that refuse to yield to a single interpretation.
Carol blends Max’s angry, destructive impulses and anxieties with Max’s
mother’s concern and, dimly, the reassuring voice of the father who isn’t
there. It’s not hard to see where Carol and KW’s quarrels come from, and KW’s
absences are the flip side of Carol’s surrogate fatherhood, but Max’s sister is
also in KW, off cavorting with her new friends and leaving Carol, and thus Max,
in the lurch.
the most revelatory moments is an outburst from Judith (the rhino-nosed one,
voiced by Catherine O’Hara), following a taunting match with Max.
not supposed to yell back at me!” she screams. “You have to just listen and
love me anyway, because that’s your job!” It is his own voice, uttering his own
unspoken plea to his mother. In another scene, Max flings at Carol the very
words his mother yelled at him: “You’re out of control!”
a word, the great difference between Sendak’s book and Jonze’s film is that the
book is about anger, while the film is as much about sadness. Here is a film
brokenhearted over the messiness of the world. It is sad and beautiful and
Greydanus is editor
critic at DecentFilms.com.
Content advisory: Some frightening moments; a few objectionable phrases. Might be too much
for sensitive kids.