A film version of Maurice Sendak’s classic childrens book Where the Wild Things Are very easily could have been a disaster. The painful live action adaptations of Dr Seuss How The Grinch the Stole Christmas and The Cat in the Hat still linger in recent memory, but this children’s movie is different because Sendak got the opportunity to hand select the only person he saw fit for the job: Spike Jonze.
Jonze, the wildly imaginative filmmaker behind Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, is the perfect choice for this material both in terms of treating it with respect and capturing Sendaks vision. The film is often strikingly beautiful. Shots of Max walking along a desert with his monstrous friends will linger in the mind for days.
As with the Seuss books, Sendaks story is only a few hundred words long and scant on plot. It was inevitable that extra material be added, but unlike the padding that went into the Seuss films – which was often in stark contrast with Seuss spirit and tone – the new material in Where the Wild Things Are feels like an extension of the book.
The book and the film tell the simple story of Max (Max Records), a misbehaving boy who after a fight with his mother (Catherine Keener) escapes into an imaginary land of giant monsters that name him their king. Within this basic framework, Jonze and his co-screenwriter, author Dave Eggers, create conflicts between Max and the wild things that deal with real and heavy emotions, including love, anger and jealousy, in a way that few family films do.
The wild things themselves are an extraordinary achievement, a seamless blend of computer generated effects and puppetry from Jim Henson’s company. These creatures arent merely story devices, but fully conceived, richly defined characters that, in the biggest departure from the source material, can speak.
Their speech patterns are not marked by the typical dumbed-down language found in most entertainment for kids. Instead of lazily populating the dialogue with pop culture references, Jonze and Eggers make the wild things melancholy creatures, who, like Max, are struggling to be understood and to understand themselves.
The wild things are brought to life by great voice-work from James Gandolfini, Catherine OHara, Forest Whitaker, Chris Cooper, Lauren Ambrose and Paul Dano. Gandolfini in particularly has the perfect timbre to provide the voice of a monster. He also provides subtle shading in his performance that makes the betrayals and hurt he feels painfully genuine.
Records, as the only human character for most of the film, has a challenging role and he meets it. Most movie kids are either too precocious or too obnoxious, but Records is neither. His interactions with the wild things are believable and he keeps Max likable even as he does unlikable things. Max is shown to be a good, if mischievous, kid who is dealing with emotions he doesnt quite comprehend and who isnt entirely equipped to deal with yet.
Some will be quick to say that this is not a kids movie because it is too dark, too pensive, too melancholy and too slow. Bollocks. Most films targeted at kids condescend to them, but here is a film with the courage to respect the intelligence of its younger viewers by giving an emotionally realistic portrayal of what it is like to be a kid. Great kids films challenge their audience – maybe even scare them a bit – but they still entertain them.
As is true with most family films, Where the Wild Things Are is full of life lessons, but in contrast to most films (even those targeted at adults), at no point does a character blatantly say what the morals are. They are simply presented and left for the audience to discover on their own.
Where the Wild Things Are is a small miracle. It is a big budget Hollywood film that feels intimate and personal and an adaptation that remains faithful to its source material even as it expands upon it.