The film adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s beloved story Where the Wild Things Are is ambitious, built from a mere eighteen illustrations and ten (grammatically-flexible) sentences. Sendak promotes childhood escapism from a world of increasing anxiety, and Spike Jonze’s film vibrantly honors this spirit.
The world weighs heavily on Max, our rambunctious young protagonist. He is dismayed by sibling rivalries, the shortcomings of single parenting, and even the impending explosion of our Sun. The film successfully and even quite elegantly portrays these issues with the detached curiosity and naiveté of a child.
Max is a little boy, and he just wants to be a little boy. He wants to build snow forts, jump on tables, and growl at passers-by. A trip to the family practitioner would probably yield a prescription for ADD medication. Society seems to be working against Max, and his place in our world feels elusive to him.
So Max escapes to an imaginary land roamed by giant furry and feathery creatures. At this point, a referral to a child psychiatrist would be imminent. Max asserts a fabricated puissance and is quickly anointed king, owing him the clout to dictate proceedings.
There’s really not much else to the story. Indeed, meager source material has produced a meager film narrative. The collaborative effort of Jonze and author Dave Eggers does not extrapolate nearly enough from Sendak’s original tale. Max struggles, he retreats to his fantasy world, stuff happens, and then it all ends. The film suffers from a lack of eventfulness.
The pure randomness of the narrative strongly evokes a childlike stream of consciousness. Just as one outrageous and improbable idea typically leads to another in the ambitious plottings of a little boy, the film’s plot leaps between estranged events with nary a sense of direction or purpose. There is a reason why children are not charged with ensuring the productivity of our society; the youthful essence here, too, produces disjointed results.
Max heralds the start of the “wild rumpus,” and the monsters bound through the air. They inhabit a wondrous exuberance as they hurl giant clods of dirt at one another and rip fully-grown trees out of the ground. They romp around without a care, unencumbered by the troubles of our world—but also without reason, a condition that grows tedious.
Whatever awes the story lacks, the visual landscape aptly provides. Scenes are beautifully realized by K.K. Barrett’s awe-inspiring artistry and crisply captured in breathtaking elegance by cinematographer Lance Acord. Director Spike Jonze captains his crew to aesthetic supremacy. A functional rendering of a child’s eager imagination could not feel more empowering.
Within this setting, the vital flames of childhood readily ignite—that is, before a misplaced and unexpected darkness descends to distinguish them. The wild things act with cold trepidation, and awkward social dramatics between them stunt their development as characters. Max grows to love these monsters, and we want to love them just as essentially. If only they weren’t so ill-defined and even, occasionally, downright unpleasant.
A heaviness permeates this land as the anxieties of Max’s life prove inescapable. Worries over the Sun’s eventual demise and the implications of losing baby teeth flow into his fantasies. These might showcase something poignant in a sharper context. Here, the story is left gasping for levity.
Instead of providing subtle commentary and textured emotions, the awkward, simple narrative begs and baits you to apply a clunky subtext. Might these monsters represent actual people in Max’s life? Or perhaps they are a little boy’s way of compartmentalizing life’s various pressures? Maybe each one personifies a different side of Max himself?
Ultimately, the questions don’t linger. As Max returns home and to reality, there is an overwhelming sense of relief. And when he falls into the warm embrace of his distraught yet thankful mother (masterfully portrayed in her few onscreen moments by Catherine Keener), it becomes clear what had been missing the entire time: a sense of humanity. The wild things of Max’s mind never quite feel human. We watch them in wonderment, but their souls stay hidden behind feathers and fur.
‘Where the Wild Things Are’ is presented by Warner Bros. Pictures in association with Legendary Pictures and Village Roadshow Pictures.
Directed by Spike Jonze. Written by Spike Jonze & Dave Eggers, based on the book by Maurice Sendak. With a bold original score by Karen O and Carter Burwell.
Starring Max Records, Catherine Keener, Mark Ruffalo, Lauren Ambrose, Chris Cooper, James Gandolfini, Catherine O’Hara and Forest Whitaker.
Runtime is 94 minutes.
Rated PG for mild thematic elements, some adventure action and brief language.