The Good: Imaginative, Well-acted, Special effects, General level of character
The Bad: Intrusive soundtrack, Pacing
The Basics: Imaginative and fun, Where The Wild Things Are is a big-screen triumph of imagination over reality!
It is a rare thing that I go into a movie aimed toward children and I like it, much less like it more than my wife. In fact, it was a real stretch for me to even go and watch Hotel For Dogs and it was a shock to both of us when I enjoyed it. There is a part of me that suspects I enjoyed it a little bit more than I ordinarily would because I was with her and it was one of our first dates. The same cannot be said for Where The Wild Things Are. In this case, we went to a screening and despite the pacing issues, I found I enjoyed the movie a great deal more than my wife did.
Where The Wild Things Are is based upon the classic children's book by the same title. Author Maurice Sendak let director Spike Jonze and his co-author David Eggers have generally free reign with the book, but given that it has been years since I have read the picture book upon which this is based, I shall do no comparison. After all, the original book was not terribly long and if it were presented on the screen as a literal translation of the book, it would only be a short. As it is, interviews with Sendak confirm that he is quite pleased with how Jonze both kept the flavor of his story alive in this film as well as made a work that was distinctly his own. This bodes well for the purists and it worked well for the film.
Max is an imaginative boy who dresses up in a wolf costume regularly, builds forts and plays enthusiastically with his classmates. Still, he is nervous about the eventual demise of the sun and he is neglected by his older sister. After getting into a snowball fight with his sister, Claire, and her friends, an event which leads to the destruction of his igloo and him being trapped in the cold, wet snow, Max trashes her room and when his mother finally arrives home, they clean it up together. His overworked mother, though, tries to discipline Max when the boy wants attention while she is on a date. Max bites her and runs off into the night, stealing a boat and sailing for two nights and a day. He ends up at an island occupied by giant, hairy (or feathered) monsters and in talking his way out of being eaten, he manages to convince them that he is a king.
Bonding with Carol, Max promises to lead the monsters well and keep sadness at bay, a promise that is made difficult by the fact that Carol's partner/sister (she's referred to as family, but they act like romantic partners) KW is leaving the tribe. After a prolonged romp through the forest with much running, jumping and playing, Carol shows Max his model of the island kingdom and Max and the group begin building an immense fort for them to live in. As construction progresses, Judith's jealousy, Alexander's insecurity and the apparent favoritism between Max and Carol strains the group and Max finds living up to his promise a near impossible task.
Where The Wild Things Are features some rather obvious (to adults) morals, but what makes it so worthwhile for all audiences is that it realistically and imaginatively presents a childlike sense of play. Even though adults who go (willingly or unwillingly) to see the film and are likely to know pretty much off the bat how the plot will collapse around Max once he starts embellishing his story, what they are likely to enjoy is the truly free-spirited presentation of youthful enjoyment of life. As we get older and our lives are made more complicated, we tend to lose the simple joy of running, jumping and playing. The illustration of those childlike activities is enthusiastically presented in this film and as a result, it is surprisingly engaging for adults.
The other aspect most likely to be lost on children who go to see Where The Wild Things Are is the adult sense of emotional interaction of the characters. Carol and KW have a complicated relationship and Jonze does an excellent job of giving each of the "monsters" a psychological quirk. Alexander is emotionally needy, Ira gets his validation from being a good partner to the pessimistic Judith, Douglas works hard to win Carol's approval, and KW wants very much to be free and to grow, away from her family. All of them dutifully rally around Max when he arrives, but Max - being a child - is largely unsuited to negotiate their adult emotions and adult relationships. As a result, he soon finds himself as much of an alien in his new island kingdom as he was back home. This is likely to leave children who see the movie as confused as Max is.
What they are not likely to be confused by is the sense of visual wonder the movie induces. From the moment Max arrives on the island to find Carol smashing the huts of the monsters, there is a pretty constant sense of movement. As well, there is a surreal combination of the real - Max, the forest, the boat - and what the viewer knows to be the unreal (the "monsters," the stick fort). Director Spike Jonze and his team work to create a flawlessly real world with a visual sensibility that is seamless. The only truly annoying special effect in this film is the soundtrack, which is made up frequently of songs that sound like children playing or chanting and it becomes overbearing at points, distracting from the visual wonder and sense of reality of the island world.
What is truly extraordinary is the work done on creating the costumes of the "monsters." First, each one is distinctive and the viewer never needs more than a glance to know which character they are looking at. As well, there is a strong sense of character to each one of Max's subjects. So, for example, Judith's face is remarkably well articulated and whomever did the work on her deserves real kudos. More than any of the other "monsters," Judith is a fully-realized character in her mannerisms as well as line deliveries. In addition to emoting with her eyes and mouth (I kid not about the eyes, it was actually incredible), Judith has a pretty extraordinary sense of body language as a strangely depressed horned beast. Despite the fact that some of the other characters - most notably Ira - are not as well-articulated, the viewer never feels like they are watching a kid interact with giant puppets. The characters are just that and not since Yoda first appeared on the screen has there been so little need for suspension of disbelief to accept a set of puppets as real live characters.
As far as the vocal talents go, the film is ruled by James Gandolfini as Carol and Lauren Ambrose as KW. Ambrose, possibly best known for her work on Six Feet Under (reviewed here!) turns out to be an exceptional voice actress, immediately creating a character with a sweetness and a sadness to her that is powerful. Ambrose makes KW a thoughtful character with just her voice when she tries to express to Max her desire to explore and grow and her feeling that she cannot necessarily do that with her "family." Even so, she manages to infuse a sense of reality and deeper emotions into every one of her deliveries and this is an incredible feat. Gandolfini, similarly, alternates between being authoritative and hurt and Carol is an easily likable character as a result. While Gandolfini gets the most voicetime as Carol, Ambrose's performance still upstages his sometimes over-the-top deliveries.
But the equal surprise for serious moviegoers will be the quality of acting from Max Records. Records, who plays Max, is essentially a child playing a child, which seems like it ought not to be a stretch for him. In that regard, the acting is unremarkable, as Records looks like he is having a good time as he runs, throws snowballs or plays. The moments that earn him true accolades (or one hopes they will) are the moments when Max has to interact with the giant muppets that surround him and treat them as utterly real. There is never a moment in Where The Wild Things Are where Max Records presents even a flicker of the reality where he is acting opposite giant puppets. Instead, his complete investment in the fictional world makes it almost impossible for the viewer to not be similarly invested.
Ultimately, outside the soundtrack, the only real problem with Where The Wild Things Are is the pacing. The film starts engagingly enough with Max chasing a little dog, but then takes a while to get to the island and once there there is a similar sense of "where is this going and when will it get there" that the viewer feels. While it is fun to watch and there are deeper themes and statements being made on the power of human emotions, Where The Wild Things Are takes a while to get around to it and that might frustrate both impatient adults and children with short attention spans.
All in all, this is a surprisingly wonderful movie for adults and children alike!
For other fantasy films, please be sure to check out my reviews of:
The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy
Alice In Wonderland
For other movie reviews, please click here to visit my index page for a nice, organized listing of all I have written!
© 2011, 2010, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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