Where the Wild Things Are *****
Movies based on children’s fantasy books are a dime a dozen nowadays but whereas most filmmakers look to the more famous or more recent works of fantasy fiction such as Harry Potter or Twilight, i.e. ones that have a big place in popular culture, for their inspirations, every now and then a film director looks to something that today’s kids may be a bit less familiar with. Where the Wild Things Are is such a film. This isn’t to say that the 1963 picture story by written and illustrated Maurice Sendak isn’t beloved by people all over the world, because it is in fact one of the most beloved children’s books of all time – at least according to the trailer for this film – but in an age when kids are more interested in wizards and vampires I suspect that not many children will be talking much about the story upon which this film is based. The story is something of an oddity in terms of being an inspiration for a film, though, as while the likes of Harry Potter and Twilight are substantial works of fiction that offer much to transfer to the screen, Where the Wild Things Are is a work clearly aimed at a much younger audience, consisting of a mere 37 pages, most of them taken up with pictures, the story itself being so short that it’s a wonder a feature length film can be made out of it at all. Such a lack of material hasn’t deterred director Spike Jonze, however, who brings his unique and distinctive filming style, previously seen in such offbeat cinematic fare as Being John Malkovich and Adaptation., to a much more mainstream, although still very artistically independent, kind of movie. And it is a style that suits the source material perfectly.
Max (Max Records) is a child turning adolescent who has a very active imagination and who throws fits if others don’t go along with what he wants. Following an incident with his sister Claire (Pepita Emmerichs) and her friends, and a tantrum which he throws as a result of his mother (Catherine Keener) paying more attention to her boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo) than him, Max runs away from home. Wearing his wolf costume at the time, Max not only runs away physically, but runs toward a world in his imagination. This world, an ocean away, is inhabited by large wild beasts, including one named Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini) who is much like Max himself in temperament. Instead of eating Max like they normally would with creatures of his type, the wild things – who also include Ira (voiced by Forest Whitaker), Douglas (voiced by Chris Cooper), The Bull (voiced by Michael Berry Jr.), Judith (voiced by Catherine O’Hara), Alexander (voiced by Paul Dano) and K.W. (voiced by Lauren Ambrose) – befriend Max after he proclaims himself a king who can magically solve all their problems. However, the problems he encountered in the real world soon catch up with him.
Where the Wild Things Are has been described as a “children’s film for adults” and this is a description that certainly that seems pretty accurate. Ranging from the kidified opening studio idents to the deeper undertones that are present throughout the film, there is a clear conflict with regard to who the film is really aimed at – children or adults – but it is a conflict that ultimately turns out in favour of mature moviegoers. This isn’t a criticism against the film but it is to say that anyone expecting a cutesy film that the whole family can enjoy may be in for a bit of a shock – while the book may well have been aimed at the young-uns this film adaptation is probably too deep and intense for really young viewers, being pretty dark and scary at times. Adults who like to let their inner child out every now and then, however, will find a lot to appreciate here. As a fantasy movie, the film really is rather beautiful, with the visuals being excellent in every regard. The film is beautifully shot, the locations and sets are fantastic, making for a visually tantalizing fantasy world, the costumes are superb and the manner in which the ‘Wild Things’ are realized so much better for not being done with CGI but rather real people wearing suits, CGI only used to enhance facial expressions. Such low tech effects as these are one of the key things that really makes the film stand out, as while CGI can deliver amazing visuals, there is something quite special in knowing that something was actually filmed rather than just created in a computer. The film also excels in other areas with fantastic audio courtesy of an indie style soundtrack and a very good story that has much more going on beneath the surface than many may realize. The fantasy world serves as a kind of contrast to Max’s real life, him initially escaping there from the real world but soon finding that he hasn’t really left his problems behind, the reasons for his frustrations really being internal. This creates deep undertones that are a significant presence but never so much as to seem preachy. For anyone who fails to pick up on this, however, the story is still very strong, although some fans of the original story may be disappointed that the actual plot of the book has effectively been retconned and its place an entire new story has been created that is true to the spirit and essence of the book. The script effectively balances the darker moments with some very sweet humour and while the film certainly isn’t recommendable for really young viewers there is certainly for both adults and children to enjoy. The performances are also excellent. Relative newcomer Max Records is sensational as Max, perfectly capturing the essence of a child who feels isolated and alone and who takes his frustrations out on those around him. Unlike many child actors he never once irritates and he shows that he is definitely a star to look out for in the future. Catherine Keener is also very good, even though her screen time is extremely limited. Kudos must also go out for the vocal performers who superbly bring to life the ‘Wild Things’. They don’t just voice the characters; they make us care about them, conveying emotion and personality in plentiful supply. Simply put, they are all excellent. So, all in all, Where the Wild Things Are is a technical marvel of a film. There is plenty for both adults and children to enjoy, but the most appreciation is likely to come from older viewers, and the film may be too scary for really young children. Whatever, though, it is a film that shows the true power of imagination, something that every one of us will have experienced at some point in our lives.
Review by Robert Mann BA (Hons)
© BRWC 2010.
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