Little Max has an attitude problem. Why? Because he's not so little and he's discovering the burden that comes with getting big: loneliness. He's a wildly imaginative kid, resourceful and brave. For reasons left unexplained, Max is also fatherless, which has left him damaged, spiteful and confused. When he crosses a line one night, Max runs away to a place full of creatures like him, creatures that howl at the moon with abandon and compliment each other on their ability to destroy things, particularly the destructive superiority of Carol, the Wild Thing that Max identifies with the most.
But look closer and you see that Carol is the one congratulating Carol on his evisceration of the stick-and-twig huts that the others call home. What Max looks in on, in his introductory scene to this new world he's braved an ocean to discover, seems at first a like-minded utopia, a tribe of overgrown toddlers who accept, even relish their temper tantrums as simple fun. What Max learns, however, is that sometimes families laugh to cover the pain and that letting loose the animal inside could just be a dangerous cry for help. Maturity is one's responsibility to 'stay calm,â?� as another Wild Thing scolds.
This and a sailboat-load of subtext are carried with remarkable honesty and lightness by co-writer and director Spike Jonze who, at 40 this month, must now be considered a modern visionary and master storyteller. Handpicked by Where the Wild Things Are author Maurice Sendak, Jonze spent nearly a decade bringing this adaptation of Sendak's iconic children's book to the big screen. He recruited his literary equivalent, Dave Eggers, to help him write the script. (Eggers also wrote a 'novelizationâ?� of the children's book and published it through his literary imprint, McSweeney's.) Jonze shot the film in a handheld, rudimentary style that brought back the lost art of animatronics, courtesy of Jim Henson's Creature Shop. A juicy book could be written about the nearly impossible journey this film took. (In fact, it has: Released this week is Heads On and We Shoot: The Making of Where the Wild Things Are.)
From the moment we meet Max, however, all of that flies out the window as we soar out of our own expectations and into the fantastic world Jonze presents. Max is played by newcomer Max Records, who was given the unenviable task of holding every scene together in a difficult film environment. Records allows his big eyes to expose every emotion without a trace of self-consciousness. Likewise, as the voice of Carol, James Gandolfini finds the most unexpectedly perfect vessel in his huffing, mouth-breathing creature's wild mood swings, from joyful to utterly menacing. Through Carol, Max could be reliving the end of his family's involvement with his father.
Mostly, Max sees a lot of himself in Carol, and the two are peas in a pod for a while. Carol makes him the king of the land, introduces him to his kvetching, neurotic pals and lets Max ride on his back as he takes him on a tour of his new domain, which reaches from picturesque oceanfront through uncertain woods and across a harsh desert plain, all photographed expertly like postcards from a prepubescent paradise. The duo roughhouse and occupy themselves by building the perfect fortress.
Unlike Sendak, however, Jonze is willing and able to be Max's disciplinarian. Where the book lets him off with nary a lesson learned, the second half of Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are serves as both a cautionary tale and an unflinching family metaphor. Despite Max's boasts that his smallness allows him to 'slip through the cracks,â?� visible breaking points begin to shatter his newfound home. Carol, it turns out, is grossly unstable, and when this is revealed in dramatic, chill-inducing fashion, the veneer of the creatures' happy coexistence disintegrates to reveal enablers, cowed introverts and codependents living under the rule of an erratic child. Max watches the sadness that his own petulance brings about, and he sees in the eyes of Carol the possible future outcome of loneliness without family ' his father's current state, perhaps?
Where the Wild Things Are is scary, yes, and unapologetically mature. Max's precociousness is seen as a gift, a curse and at times a defense mechanism, which is miraculous considering the overwrought sympathy Jonze and Eggers could so easily have slipped into. Both artists have succumbed to cutesy nostalgia- porn in some of their past work (Jonze's 'Island in the Sun (Version 2)â?� Weezer video, parts of many Eggers novels), and singer Karen O's accompanying soundtrack falls into that trap. But in place of contemplative whimsy rests poignant frankness, insight and tears, not bemused chin-stroking.
I abhor parental guides attached to film reviews, but it's a worthwhile question in this case. Regarding children and this movie, I will offer that mine is dying to see it, and he will â?¦ at home on DVD, down the line, when he can ask questions or express his thoughts out loud and not be shushed. The fact that I'm sure he will have those thoughts and questions is the most wholehearted endorsement of a film that I can give.