I’ve got to give it to Spike Jonze. He took on the Herculean task of adapting one of the most beloved children’s books of all time, and mostly got it right. I remember the book vividly, and seeing the creatures in the movie brought to life is a spectacle to behold. It is absolutely breathtaking. They are exactly as you remember them, but real.
When Jonze decided to forgo the usual CGI, film followers exhaled a sigh of relief. Instead, a combination of puppetry, live action and CGI (for the facial expressions) was employed. Jonze said that he felt a physical presence was necessary for the actor (Max Richards) to interact with. I agree. However, at times I felt the creatures tread a little too close to H.R. Pufnstuf territory, and I would be jarred out of the movie.
The film begins with the hero Max displaying the typical antics of a boy his age. He’s hyper as hell as he dashes about the house, partakes in a snowball fight in his yard, and terrorizes the family dog. He tries to get the attention of his harried mom (Catherine Keener) and is upset when his sister leaves with her friends.
The final straw comes when he sees his mom doting on a presumed boyfriend, and he promptly bites his mother, who keeps asking him what the heck is wrong with him. Stinging from her verbal lashing, he bounds out the door in his wolf costume and runs away. He finds a small sailboat and jumps in, which ferries him to the land where the monsters live.
The monsters announce their intent to gobble him up, so young Max must think fast on his feet. He convinces them that he is a King, and he will help them stay happy and together. At first the island seems like a Utopian dream. He can run and shout, and do anything he wishes. Soon enough though, he realizes that it is harder than it looks to keep a “family” together.
The monsters begin bickering and fighting on a regular basis. The main monster Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini) starts exhibiting a truly frightful temper, and it becomes apparent that Max is in way over his head.
I’m ill-equipped to give you a psychological analysis of the film, but the movie obviously tries to address the myriad of emotions that accompany childhood. Max has the added burden of a troubled home life, and uses his imagination to escape his everyday problems.
The acting (and voice acting) is excellent. Max Richards is very natural and believable as young Max. In addition to Gandolfini, Lauren Ambrose, Catherine O’Hara, Paul Dano, Forest Whitaker and Chris Cooper all contribute their vocal talents. The actors all actually recorded the movie while they acted it out on a soundstage with each other, which is unusual. Later, the costume actors crafted their performances based on the recordings.
Where The Wild Things Are, written by Maurice Sendak, consisted of a scant 9 sentences, which hardly seems like enough material to adapt into a full length feature film. That’s the problem. It’s not. The middle third is obviously drug out, and becomes quite boring.
The creatures and Max “get their rumpus on.” Then they get it on some more. Then they really get it on. At one point I literally had to pinch myself to keep from falling asleep during that large chunk of the movie. Screenwriter Dave Eggers (best known for writing A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) falters a bit in that middle stretch.
Fortunately, Jonze hits it out of the park with an emotional ending. Carol’s goodbye, in particular, will tug at your heartstrings. Max returns to his worried mom, and they have a poignant mother-son moment. Beautiful.
Jonze has said in many interviews that this is not a movie made for children, but that it is a film about being a child. It is not really scary, but children under 7 may find a final scene frightening. The children sitting around me just seemed bored. Once the novelty of the visuals wear off, there’s not much else going on.
It’s also pretty melancholy, hardly the light-hearted romp you might be expecting. I can’t help but feel that this would have been perfect had it been about a 50 minute running time, with all the fat in the middle trimmed out.
All songs on the soundtrack are by Karen O and the Kids (Karen is the frontwoman of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs). Fellow musicians from The Raconteurs, The Deerhunters, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs all help out Karen O on the soundtrack, which also features an amateur children’s choir. Though initially charming, it wears out its welcome rather quickly. A little variety would have enhanced the movie.