Maurice Sendak’s beloved children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are, published in 1963 and awarded the Caldecott Medal in 1964, is comprised of ten sentences and follows a misbehaving boy’s imaginary journey to a mysterious land where the inhabitants look like a mishmash of birds, trolls, bulls and humans. I would submit there are not many adults or kids who haven’t read Sendak’s masterpiece, but the question I’ve always had is how do you turn a narrative so small, yet so ornate, into a 90 minute feature film?
Simple: You hire a visionary director and you gamble.
That’s why Spike Jonze was offered the camera by Sendak himself, after many attempts in the 1980s, even one by Disney and Pixar, to bring the film to life. Jonze is, without question, an auteur and is the brains behind such critically acclaimed films as Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. As a side note, Jonze also hilariously portrayed a redneck army private in David O. Russell’s 1999 war movie, Three Kings. If you haven’t seen that movie, I’d suggest Netflixing it pronto. In any case, despite clearly having acting chops, Jonze has stayed mainly behind the lens and in Where the Wild Things Are his imagination and fresh thought are on display once again. Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) have taken the heart of Sendak’s story and filled in all the gaps with more warmth, heart and hope.
The main character in WTWA, as everyone knows, is Max (Max Records – who can also be seen in the glorious Rian Johnson film, The Brothers Bloom), a gregarious 12 year-old boy who, like a lot of kids, finds himself wedged uncomfortably between two worlds, that of a child and that of a young man. Max’s parents are divorced, with his mom (Catherine Keener) spending time with her boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo) and his older sister, Claire (Pepita Emmerichs), who once doted after him, is now more concerned with boys. All of this makes Max emotional and confused and he expresses this via anger, specifically biting his mother and telling her he’s going to eat her up. When his mother yells at him, Max “runs away” a few blocks from his home. Nearby he finds a non-descript white sailboat, which he boards and which takes him out to sea.
Clad in his wolf costume, Max crosses the ocean and lands on a vast island inhabited by large monsters. When Max first encounters the monsters, one of them, Carol (James Gandolfini) is having a temper tantrum, because his love interest, KW (Lauren Ambrose), has a few new friends and isn’t giving all her attention to Carol. In his anger, Carol is smashing the Wild Things’ houses. Max feels Carol’s disenchantment and joins the creature.
The Wild Things aren’t quite sure what to make of this tiny human. Alexander (Paul Dano), Douglas (Chris Cooper), The Bull (Michael Berry Jr.) and Ira (Forest Whitaker), all seem to agree with Carol – that Max is special and should be crowned king. The skeptical Judith (Catherine O’ Hara) thinks they should just eat him. In the end, as the story goes, Max is crowned king and spends days playing and teaching the Wild Things. Of course, we all know this is imaginary and the correlations between what Max imagines and his real life are clear and poignant.
The message and the feeling I got from the movie was one of hope and love. Early on in the film, Max’s teacher is talking about how eventually the sun will die and engulf the Earth. The kids in the class look petrified. They’ve never considered the sun would ever die. It made me think of all the negative we, as humans, spread on a daily basis with our thoughts and the way we talk. How hopeless we make life out to be sometimes. What Max discovers on his imaginary island is something we all need to find to make our lives and the lives of others happier and that’s hope and love. Max realizes the only way to find happiness is to make others happy.
I highly recommend Where the Wild Things Are, but I’d caution on taking your younger kids. The movie is PG and has no objectionable content, but most of the under eight crowed at the screening I attended were drooling out of boredom. This is the first kid’s movie that I think is clearly made for adults. It’s worth the full-price ticket and definitely one of the best films of the year.