Where The Wild Things Are isn't a film for children, but about them. Many critics love it, but others say it's "made by, and for, members of a generation who feel it's unfair to have to grow up."
Where The Wild Things Are, of course, is based on the beloved children's book by Maurice Sendak, which presented a challenge for director Spike Jonze, who also wrote the screenplay with Dave Eggers. (The story only contains 10 sentences.) To turn the book into a full-length feature, Jonze and Eggers don't reinterpret it but expand on it, showing what prompts Max (Max Records) to misbehave and get sent to his room with no supper in the first place. In the film, which opens today, Max gets upset when his teenage sister Claire (Pepita Emmerichs) and her friends destroy his snow fort and his single mother (Catherine Keener) pays more attention to work and her new boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo) than him. Max acts out and then runs away from home in his wolf costume. In his imagination, he travels by boat to an island where he befriends giant creatures who make him their king. The creatures (voiced by James Gandolfini, Paul Dano, Lauren Ambrose, Chris Cooper, and Forest Whitaker) embody Max's various emotional issues from feeling abandoned, bossy, needy, or too wild.
Many critics call the film one of the year's best, both for honoring Sendak's book and accomplishing Jonze's goal of capturing "the feeling of what it is to be 9." Other reviewers aren't as enchanted, saying it is less representative of what children are actually like, and more about adults wistfully longing for their own childhoods. While many parents are worried the "Wild Things" will scare children, the critics say they're more likely to be bored by the creatures' neurotic problems. As for adults, while many scenes of Max's "wild rumpus" provide an "undeniable rush of pleasure," their enjoyment of the film may rest on their willingness to ponder the emotional world of children while listening to an indie rock soundtrack.
Sendak's great gift to readers, old as well as young, is the seriousness with which he presents even the wildest mayhem, the deepest contradictions in human (and Wild Thing) behavior; the author empathizes with fantasists but has no time for cuteness. In his transcendent movie adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are, Spike Jonze not only respects the original text but also honors movie lovers with the same clarity of vision. This is one of the year's best. To paraphrase the Wild Thing named KW, I could eat it up, I love it so.
The filmmaker, Mr. Jonze, has done only two features until now, Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. Both were strikingly original, marvelously intricate and notably erratic in their plot and structure. They made him an exciting choice to direct this one, though also a risky choice, since the Sendak book is essentially plotless. (Boy misbehaves, boy's unseen mother sends him to bed without supper, boy's room becomes a forest populated by bizarre creatures who make him king and do his bidding until he feels hungry for love and heads back home.) Happily-and improbably, given the potential for outraging whole generations of readers-the risks have been managed by taking greater risks, and some brave ones. This adaptation, by the director and his celebrated co-writer, Dave Eggers, makes Max a somewhat older (maybe 8 or 9) and much angrier child than the original-all that wildness doesn't come from nowhere-as well as a wrenchingly vulnerable child whose adventures are elaborately rooted in his everyday life. His mother is not only seen but powerfully felt: Catherine Keener, an actress of unforced warmth and uncommon humor, has never been so affecting, even when this loving mom vents ample anger in her turn. (Mark Ruffalo appears briefly as her boyfriend.)
Much is left unexplained in Mr. Jonze's adaptation, including Max's melancholia, which hangs over him, his family and his wild things like a gathering storm. But childhood has its secrets, mysteries, small and large terrors. When a hilariously bungling teacher explains, rather too casually, that the sun is going to die, the flash of horror on Max's face indicates that he understands that the sun won't be the only one to go. There are other reasons, perhaps, an absent father, a distracted mother. (And when a frightened Max listens to an argument between Carol and K W, you hear the echoes of parental discord.) But such analysis is for therapy, not art, and one of the film's pleasures is its refusal of banal explanation.
Viewers expecting a consoling, soft-focus version of an anodyne children's story should be forewarned: Jonze takes the story to the dark and edgy place where devotion slips into aggression, where loneliness and fear are indistinguishable from liberation and desire. This isn't to say that Where the Wild Things Are isn't suitable for children; it's just that it will probably be most enjoyable to children with a working knowledge of Bruno Bettelheim's "The Uses of Enchantment" and psychoanalytic theory.
Though little happens, it doesn't much need to. Max gets to know the wild things in ways that simply ring true, and that's story enough. He favors Gandolfini, all but ignores the timid goat-beast voiced by Paul Dano, tries to impress big-sister figure Lauren Ambrose, and bosses around Chris Cooper's bird-man. And in a subtle, daring, but thoroughly effective move, Jonze has Max fearfully avoid the nameless, near-silent bull, who often appears alone and in the distance, unremarked upon. Whether the action is grand and exciting, as when Jonze brings to life a massive fortress made of twigs, or simple and human, as in touching one-on-ones that Max has with Ambrose, Dano, and Gandolfini, it all feels genuine to the actual experience of childhood in ways that children's movies generally don't. Max learns about himself, to be sure, but Jonze never considers making the sort of broad-stroke, "Here's what everybody learned!" gestures that attempt to stand in for actual emotion. Instead, he lets a little kid loose to explore the terrain of his own mind, which turns out to be an amazing place.
Eggers has said he and Jonze wanted to avoid depicting Max as so many movie kids are shown: "de-fanged." Max certainly has fangs - and he's not afraid to use them. The uneven pacing and tone are stirring, blending melancholy with boisterous fun. When you think about it, those polarities best capture the most indelible images of anyone's childhood - those which hurt or frighten, and those which thrill... Where the Wild Things Are is a fiercely innovative film with surprising texture and nuance. It captures the joy and exuberance of childhood without shying away from its very real pains and woes.
Jonze and Eggers's most agreeable innovation is turning Sendak's rather anonymous beasts into complex, conflicted personalities. They sit around quarreling, smashing things, making holes in trees, staring into space, and wishing for a leader. They're like a counterculture commune after all the hippies and their woks have left, after the drugs have stopped working so well. And then comes little Max, who proclaims himself a king to keep them from devouring him. Max Records (I still can't get over that name) has a mop of dark hair and a sweet face, but his Max is petulant and edgy. It's a wonderful performance; you'd never know he was acting opposite nine-foot puppets.
The movie felt long to me, and there were some stretches during which I was less than riveted. Is it possible that there wasn't enough Sendak story to justify a feature-length film? In a way I suppose the book tells a feature-length story just in Sendak's drawings, and Jonze and Eggers have taken those for their inspiration. All the same, the film will play better for older audiences remembering a much-loved book from childhood, and not as well with kids who have been trained on slam-bam action animation.
The only actor with significant screen time is relative newcomer Max Records, whose only previous feature credit is a small part in The Brothers Bloom (he played Stephen as a boy). Records' greatest strength is his incredibly expressive face. He conveys emotions through his expressions; his delivery of dialogue is less certain. It remains to be seen whether his career trajectory will lead him to become the next "big" child actor or whether he'll perform on the periphery until puberty hits. Catherine Keener has a small role as Max's mom, and her confident presence in her few scenes makes us wish Jonze had found a way to expand her screen time. The vocal casting is perfect: James Gandolfini as Carol, Lauren Ambrose as KW, Paul Dano as the goat Alexander; Catherine O'Hara as the perpetually negative Judith; Forest Whitaker as Judith's sadsack companion, Ira; Chris Cooper as Douglas, this film's Big Bird; and Michael Berry Jr. as the taciturn Bull. Only Gandolfini's voice is immediately recognizable; everyone else blends anonymously into their parts, and the Tony Soprano connection serves only to invest Carol with an extra edge.
While this much-awaited, long-in-the-works film has more than its share of wild rumpuses, its big, shaggy heart is in what happens after the rumpus dies down: insecurities, misunderstandings, fears. Where the Wild Things Are isn't for little kids so much as it's about them, and parents and tykes expecting the next Shrek or even a seamless work of Pixar genius will be sorely disappointed if not a little freaked out. The movie is a wild thing, and that's not such a bad thing at all.
The film does surmount one of its two difficult challenges: Through puppetry and computer animation, the filmmaking teams have successfully put a world of childhood imagination on the screen. Where the film falters is Jonze and novelist Dave Eggers' adaptation, which fails to invest this world with strong emotions. Children might enjoy the goofy monsters and their fights and squabbles, but adults likely are to grow weary of the repetitiveness. In the end, the book probably was too slender to support a 102-minute movie. Without a quest to propel the story, such as Dorothy's journey in The Wizard of Oz, the movie turns into an afternoon-special with an easily digested moral that fails to grab youngsters by the collar and shake them up with an exciting adventure.
The wild things move around pretty well and interact with Max in a credible way that fully justifies the no doubt difficult decision not to use CGI all the way. All the more ironic, then, that the film's biggest problem is not the look of the creatures but the manner in which they speak. That said, the thesps provide low-key, nuanced readings, with Gandolfini and Lauren Ambrose particularly distinguishing themselves with dialogue that often seems odd coming from the toothsome mouths seen onscreen. Excellent production values stress the relative realness of what's on view compared to the digital worlds of most kidpics these days. The alt-rock tenor of the music scoring is refreshing at first, but the predictability of the music cues proves increasingly wearisome.
What's best about Jonze's movie is its kinetic feel for physical play-herky-jerky camera as Max and the WTs zip and bounce through the forest-not surprising from a former skateboard punk like Spike. What's weakest is its blandness, the sense memory of a child raised on Sesame Street. The psychic environment is less King Kong's Skull Island than Fred Rogers' neighborhood: Where the Wild Things Aren't. Wild Things isn't overlong, but it is underwhelming. Who is the audience? Children brought to see it might find it a downer-a case of what the New York Times has called "misery for art's sake." Triumph or travesty, this movie is more likely something for Jonze's generational cohorts to love or loathe. (How many suburban garage bands had the name Wild Rumpus?) For me, it seemed like group therapy with the muppets.
Jonze and Eggers have spoken of their desire to keep the film close to a child's needs, but have they done that? Kids like danger, followed by a release from danger and a return to safety, yet the only danger posed by these creatures is that they will turn Max into someone as messed-up as they are. The filmmakers may have wanted to link Max's anger to the creatures' wounds, but the connection is fuzzy-Max isn't the one who hurt them. I have a vision of eight-year-olds leaving the movie in bewilderment. Why are the creatures so unhappy? That question doesn't return a child to safety or anywhere else. Of one thing I am sure: children will be relieved when Max gets away from this anxious crew.
When the wild things race through the forest to the sound of a Yeah Yeah Yeahs song or leap atop Max and one another in a great, snuggly pile, there's an undeniable rush of pleasure. (You can get it in its purest form by watching the trailer.) But in between these hits of energy are long swaths of desultory narrative about the relationships among the wild things themselves: Judith is jealous of Carol because of his special closeness to Max. Carol is bummed that K.W. has made friends outside the wild-thing community. Alexander struggles with the self-esteem issues you might expect from a puny, introverted goat. Essentially, the entire middle section could be summed up as follows: Fuzzy guys build a stick fort, sit inside it, and mope. If I avoid taking my 3-and-a-half-year-old daughter to this movie, it won't be because the wild things would scare her. (They might frighten some children, but I live with a miniature adrenaline junkie.) It'll be because their endless therapeutic workshopping would bore her stiff.
The problem with this cast of characters is not so much their personalities but the way screenwriters Jonze and Eggers have turned them into neurotic adults with dysfunctional relationships. To hear them talk among themselves is to feel like you've stumbled onto a group therapy session involving unfunny refugees from an alternate universe Woody Allen movie. It's not a good feeling. Max does utter the book's signature line, "Let the wild rumpus start," but he spends a lot of his time not really being sure what he's doing. When Jonze told the New York Times Magazine, "Everything we did, all the decisions we made, were to try to capture the feeling of what it is to be 9," he's telling the truth. Unfortunately, in this case, that's not a very interesting place to be.
That right there is enough to make me urge any filmmaker to stick to his vision. It isn't, unfortunately, enough to make me like his movie. Where the Wild Things Are may be a childlike picture, but it isn't an innocent one. The movie is so loaded with adult ideas about childhood — as opposed to things that might delight or engage an actual child — that it comes off as a calculated, petulant shout, the kind of trick kids play to guilt-trip their parents into paying attention to them. It appears to be a movie made by, and for, members of a generation who feel it's unfair to have to grow up. Jonze isn't channeling the feelings of 9-year-olds so much as he's obsessively fingering his own, like the silky edge of a blanket. "Who cares about the children?" is Jonze's sulky rhetorical question. "What about me?"