DIR: Spike Jonze • WRI: Spike Jonze, Dave Eggers • PRO: John B. Carls, Gary Goetzman, Tom Hanks, Vincent Landay, Maurice Sendak • DOP: Lance Acord • ED: James Haygood, Eric Zumbrunnen • DES: K.K. Barrett • CAST: Max Records, Catherine Keener, James Gandolfini, Paul Dano, Catherine O’Hara, Forest Whitaker, Michael Berry Jr., Chris Cooper, Lauren Ambrose
This is quite a dark, brooding little tale, made all the more affective by its simplicity. A young boy, Max (Max Records), disobeys his mother (Catherine Keener) and seeks refuge in a land of monsters who adopt him as their king. The film is directed by Spike Jonze and has been adapted from Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s story. But whereas Sendak’s 1963 book, which was less than 350 words long, was a fable for children, Jonze’s film is more a melancholic reflection on childhood for adults.
In the world populated by Jim Henson’s overgrown, and wonderfully realized, mondo muppet monsters, Max learns valuable lessons about who he is and what he has. This is not a world populated by the usual collection of the cartoonish opposites of the good loveable creatures versus the bad evil pantomime ones. Here we have a mixed bunch of hulking hirsute creatures that you will neither cheer for nor boo. But you will listen to and be moved by them.
Not everyone will be enamoured with what happens in this other world. Most of what occurs on the island with its dense forests, rolling sand dunes, and swooping cliffs, is random and inconclusive. The creatures, mostly somber and somewhat neurotic are simply living their lives. In between nothing really happening, Max engages in some contemplable dialogue with the monsters (who all represents facets of himself) and gets the chance to play out his problems with aggression and fears of isolation.
Having said all that, Max is actually quite an irritating spoilt little blackguard at the best of times and there can be little sympathy for him as he rallies against his home life; after all it is quite a normal life and he has a cushy number there pushing the viewer to annoyance at what he has to rage against, and that really he should be disciplined by having his Wii taken off him and no cookies for a week. But he’s a kid – and kids don’t know if they have things easy or not, for their inexperienced egocentricity means that if something bad is happening to them, it’s the worst thing in the whole wide world. And yes, it is a simple message he learns. And let’s not even start on the ending (cringe factor 9).
Yet despite this, the world that exists over Max’s rainbow is a sumptuous one to behold and the film is beautifully shot (in Australia) masterfully capturing both scenes of vast open spaces and claustrophobic tight spaces. Jonze treats it all with a low-key approach and uses a natural palette to bring this world to life.
Jonze has made Sendak’s book his own fleshing out its cerebral musings and opening it up to rich reinterpretation. Where the Wild Things Are is not what you might expect; as is often the case with Jonze. Nevertheless, it’s refreshing to see such a film that doesn’t feel the need to play for laughs or pander to cutesiness. A kid’s film you don’t have to bring kids to.
Where the Wild Things Are is released 11th Dec 2009