"...enormously engaging and strikingly powerful."

Childhood Recaptured

(102309) It is worth noting that when Maurice Sendak first published his children’s story “Where the Wild Things Are” in 1963, it was not immediately embraced as the classic of the genre that it would eventually become. Oh sure, it received plenty of critical raves and won the prestigious Caldecott Medal for kid-related literature in 1964 but when it first hit shelves, it raised the hackles of many parents, teachers and librarians who complained that the tale was too dark, too strange and neglected to offer its readers the kind of clear-cut lessons about obeying parents or flossing after every meal that were considered to be an essential part of any story aimed at children. What finally put it over the top was the fact that when kids did get their hands on it, the story spoke to them in a direct and immediate manner--possibly because it was dark, strange and neglected to offer its readers the kind of clear-cut lessons about obeying parents or flossing after every meal--without speaking down to them. Now the eagerly awaited screen adaptation of Sendak’s tale from director Spike Jonze has finally arrived and I have the sneaky suspicion that history may repeat itself--parents and other authority figures (especially those who were successfully kept from the book during their own childhoods) may deem it too dark, weird and off-putting for the delicate sensibilities of their offspring, who are presumably better served in their minds with the likes of “G-Force,” while younger viewers may embrace it for those very reasons. If this proves to be the case, then it will once again prove that kids are, in many ways, smarter and more astute than their elders because the film is pretty close to being an instant masterpiece--a one-of-a-kind marvel that not only manages to bring a beloved classic to the screen in a manner that (perfectly captures the spirit of the book but expands and build on the themes of the original storypretty much a necessity since Sendak’s version consists of only a handful of sentences totaling only a little over 300 words) in ways that are both enormously engaging and strikingly powerful.

Young Max (Max Records) is a wild little thing himself. First seen chasing around the family dog on all fours with a fork and starting a snowball fight with some older kids, he nevertheless still feels as if he's alone in this world. His teenage sister doesn't have time for him anymore. Divorced Mom (Catherine Keener) is stressed out from work, finding temporary relief in the creative stories Max concocts out of thin air. On a particularly bad day after having his snow fort destroyed and taking his frustration out on his sister's room and mom's arm, Max has had enough and runs out into the night. He finds an abandoned sailboat and takes it as far as the storm waters will take him. The shore Max discovers though is inhabited by creatures who maybe wilder than him or his imagination; giant, furry, feathered creatures who appear to be having their own problems getting along.

Max first sees Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini) destroying the various huts of his defacto family while they, more or less, stay out of his way. The others include maternal figure, Judith (Catherine O'Hara) and her go-with-the-flow companion, Ira (Forest Whitaker), who shares with Carol a talent for punching holes into things. Douglas (Chris Cooper) looks more like a rooster than his beastly counterparts while goat creature, Alexander (Paul Dano), communicates longer on menacing stares than with his tongue. And somewhere about is KW (Lauren Ambrose) who is just as happy doing her own thing as spending time with her friends. Clearly not looking like any of them, Max still engages their curiosity when he tells them he's a king and world traveler. In need of some structure themselves, they elect Max their leader and he begins to craft a kingdom that they can all share equally. What will happen though when Max discovers that such grown-up responsibilities sometimes come with leaving things you love behind?

Such a question is at the heart of Where the Wild Things Are but is not explicitly what makes it beat. This is far beyond just another tale of growing up and leaving childhood behind, but a direct lesson in understanding through the eyes of a child who needs to learn one. We aren't even to the film's title before we're worried if Max is going to gorge that poor dog (accidentally or on purpose) with a kitchen utensil and biting one's mother isn't exactly a trait of endearment. Sharp teeth certainly becoming a motif that runs throughout the film right up to the moments of clarity that both young Max and the viewers will discover as quite heady material for a children's picture.

The Wizard of Oz will not be far from your mind as the land of the Wild Things appear destined for the kind of direct correlation between Dorothy's memories and the inhabitants of her new Technicolor world. Max's journey is never quite as black-and-white. At first glance, Carol is an obvious doppelganger for Max just as KW might be considered his sister and the rule-mongering Judith as the worst reminiscence of mom. Their roles in Max's life begin to shift ever so finely as he feels the weight (both figuratively and literally) of his new friends pressing down on his free-wheeling ways. He begins to sense the consequences of going too far with his games and, most provocatively of all, starts to inhabit the skins of those from his past. Mom and her need for companionship. Sister and her growth into adolescence. Even an absentee father who may have just needed some time away and a place that he could call his own. For a child of Max's rambunctious ness to not just learn these lessons but to empathize with those he may have at one time scorned is the sort of innovative storytelling that will see Where the Wild Things Are mentioned in the same breath as some of the best family films ever made.

It's a testament to director Spike Jonze in the way he's clearly paying tribute to the films of many generations. It's impossible to think that those with a direct connection to Sendak's book will walk away wishing for a different interpretation, but for the scattered few without that connection can still appreciate in spades that the film speaks to a vast collection of memories rather than down to some lowly elucidation of what we think kids expect. Created within the legendary Jim Henson company, the Wild Things are vibrantly alive with the kind of personality all but extinct in the era of CGI (a method used only to help animate their faces). Reminiscent of the gorgs who caused trouble for those who wondered into their domain on Fraggle Rock, the seamless integration of costumed puppetry with wonderful voice talent brings to mind films like The Dark Crystal or any of the Muppet films, but on a grander scale. No one will spend time trying to pick out the celebrity voices on display and the most easily recognizable one in Gandolfini is the best of them all as he projects a quiet openness with his new play pal and a crushing breath of alienation when they begin to drift apart.

Jonze and Eggers (having a fine year debut in writing film with this and Away We Go) are to be commended for melding the simplicity of Sendak’s surface story with almost starting from scratch in creating personalities out of characters who originally had not a name between them. Even the practically mute Alexander gets an exit line that is not just tremendously moving but is a perfect capsulation of what was going on inside with him the whole time. It was a bravura stroke of them to turn the wild things into living, breathing creatures rather than just a figment of Max’s overactive psyche. No click of the heels or waking up here, but rather a pair of real worlds with real feelings. Max doesn’t just return to find a hot supper waiting for him but something infinitely more nourishing in a final scene without words that is as simple as Sendak’s final page but speaks greater volumes about there being truly no place like home. Where the Wild Things Are is a priceless treasure in the limited spectrum of live-action children’s films. And I use the word children there instead of family because its already inherent in Jonze’s work here and anyone blessed with the experience of watching it will be unable to dismiss they are looking upon it with the eyes of a child.

“Where the Wild Things Are” is a bold and brilliant film that will appeal to viewers of all ages in a way that few such things ever do. It is one of those little wonders of the cinema in which pretty much every single aspect of the film, no matter how minor or how odd, just works in beautiful and wholly expected ways. Not only is it one of the best films of the year, it is almost certain to become one of those perennials that effortlessly pass from generation to generation because its appeal is utterly timeless. If you were to make a shortlist of the great family films of all time, it would include the likes of “The Wizard of Oz,” “My Neighbor Totoro” and “The Black Stallion” It may seem a bit soon to say such a thing but I am confident that when such lists are made in the future, “Where the Wild Things Are” will have a secure place on them.

Directed by:    Spike Jonze
Written by:    Screenplay by Spike Jonze, Dave Eggers. Based
 on the book of the same name by Maurice Sendak
Starring:    Max Records, Catherine Keener, Mark Ruffalo
Released:    10/16/09 (USA)
Length:    94 minutes
Rating:    Rated PG-13 for mild thematic elements, some
 adventure action and brief language

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Review © 2009 Alternate Reality, Inc. 

(aka "Old Reviews")