Where The Wild Things Are
I took my five year old son to see Where The Wild Things Are, the film version of Maurice Sendak's beloved children's book of the same name directed by left-of-center director Spike Jonze (Adaptation). I wasn't sure what to expect, to be honest. I had not read any reviews of the film, and had only seen the trailers. Knowing what I knew about Jonze and what I had read in some of the trade magazines, I did know that his vision for the film had the blessing of Sendak himself.
I was not prepared for the depth and the beauty of the movie, however. In a wonderful between-the-lines interpretation of the 10 sentences found in Sendak's original story, Jonze delivers a story of hope and imagination that is surprising and joyful.
At the outset of the film we meet Max (Max Records). Max is the nine year old main character of both the book and the film. We discover that Max's mom (Catherine Keener-Adaptation, 40 Year-Old Virgin) is the single parent of Max and his teenage sister Claire. We are not introduced to Max's father, save through a globe that rests in his room with an engraved plaque that reads, "To Max, Owner of This World, Love Dad." Max craves the sense of togetherness and family that perhaps existed at one point in time, but no longer. His sister is growing up and hanging out with her teenage friends. When Claire doesn't defend Max when he is treated poorly by her friends he reacts by wrecking her room. His mother struggles with her job and is visibly stressed. Max reacts by trying to make her happy by doing "the robot" and telling her stories. When Max's mom tries to have a small window of time with her boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo-Shutter Island), Max acts out and tries to ruin it.
Like many nine-year olds in his situation, Max takes on the responsibility of everyone's happiness.
In a moment of rage, Max runs away from home and soon finds himself on the edge of a lake where there is a small sailboat waiting for him. He is soon sailing across a treacherous ocean and to an island of unbelievable imagination. The island is inhabited by seven very large, very wild creatures: Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini-The Sopranos), the mercurial leader; Douglas (Chris Cooper-Adaptation) , a soft-spoken, level-headed bird-like creature; Judith (Catherine O'Hara-Best In Show), a manipulative, negative rhino-like monster; Ira (Forrest Whittaker-Last King of Scotland), Judith’s kind and thoughtful boyfriend; Alexander (Paul Dano-Little Miss Sunshine), small goatish creature who is respected by no one; Bull (Michael Berry, Jr), a large bison who says very little; and KW (Lauren Ambrose), a smart, sensitive female version of Carol, who doesn't seem to fit in any more and prefers her new friends to her old ones. The group is in upheaval, and Carol is angry and destructive. When Max stands up to the wild things on the island after they threaten to eat him, they do an about-face and make him their king. He is immediately charged with the task of making everything better again. A task that proves much more difficult than he first imagined. The parallel world that Max has created, a world that he "owns," becomes the very place where he is able to begin making meaning and sense of his changing family.
Where the Wild Things Are is a beautiful movie--beautifully shot, beautifully written (Jonze's purpose was to make a movie about what it meant to be nine-years old, and he succeeded) and beautifully scored by Karen O of the Yeah, Yeah, Yeah's.
On a personal note, I think that there will be parents who take their children to the film with expectations that it's something like Shrek or filled with loveable muppets. They might be expecting that it will have a clear lesson at the end of the story. They also might be expecting that there will be charming musical moments or a dance number or two. Where the Wild Things Are is not that kind of film, and has none of those charmy Disney moments. And the "lesson" isn't quite as clear. There is a messiness and ambiguity to the moral at the end of the story that makes it real, however. I realize that seems strange to say about a film grounded in imagination, but there it is.
Probably the best assessment of Where the Wild Things Are came from my five year old son. When I asked him what he thought about the movie he said, "I can't put it into words, but I liked it."