Director: Spike Jonze Notable Cast: Max Records, Catherine Keener, (voices of) James Gandolfini, Lauren Ambrose, Chris Cooper, Forest Whitaker, Catherine O’Hara, Paul Dano
Live-action family films have become an unfortunate casualty. As animated films grow in popularity, less effort is put into producing family features with actors performing for the camera. It’s a little sad in a way; movies like The Princess Bride, Gremlins, and The Goonies getting replaced by Madagascar sequels. Thank goodness for Spike Jonze and unique vision. He adapts a story containing only nine sentences and turns it into something wild.
Where the Wild Things Are is seemingly a story about nothing and everything. From Maurice Sendak’s famed children’s book about a rambunctious child named Max and his wild imagination, I can admit this much: This is not a kid’s film. It’s a story about childhood, but for adults. It’s in its own way heartbreaking, which is amusing only because the adaptation is co-written by Dave Eggers who penned the memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Most adults who spend the money to watch Wild Things will have never heard of Jonze or Eggers. Smaller children may not take to the movie’s style or structure, but could be transfixed by the Jim Henson-like creations. So who is this movie for exactly? Those who have fond memories of the classic story with amazing illustrations: That’s who.
Max (Max Records) is an energetic nine-year-old. Like most children, he’s sweet and nice at times but also seeks attention whenever he can. His imagination is his best friend, allowing him to make forts out of bed sheets and couch cushions. He’s a kid that would combine Legos and normal household items and have fun for hours.
Everything is a big deal to a kid, even if it is something small like losing a favorite toy. For Max, he is the youngest in a family without a fatherly presence. An emotional pain exists but Max’s complicated emotions are not easily communicable. His face lights up at the thought of having a snowball fight with his sister and her friends. But the merriment fades fast when he is hurt after his snow cave collapses at the weight of somebody much bigger – and with him still hiding inside of it.
The mother (Catherine Keener), tired and worn out from work, will listen to her son’s original stories to ease some of the stress in her life, yet Max’s playfulness leads him to misbehave in the presence of her boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo in a cameo). He dashes out of the house like a sprinter from a startling block, and as he runs away it is here where his imagination truly kicks into high gear.
He finds a boat and sails into the abyss that leads him to an island inhabited by seven large and woolly monsters. The group’s de facto leader, Carol (voice of James Gandolfini), is taken with Max almost instantly, seeing not a boy, but someone who has the soul of a Wild Thing. So he appoints him king. Now Max faces the challenges of overseeing his loyal subjects. At the same time, he learns how to deal with hardships and rewards as he would if he were in a true family environment.
Where the Wild Things Are is not driven by a narrative thread or character development, making it a rarity in the family film genre. The opening minutes are reality-based with an emphasis towards Max’s tomfoolery. This is a contrast to the other ninety minutes on the mysterious island.
At 100 minutes, it doesn’t offer enough material to require such a running time – Sendak’s book acting as an outline can be stretched only so much. So the film meanders, causing pacing issues in the second act. The story should elevate because of Max’s adventures, but it’s difficult to be emotionally invested in the story; making Jonze’s adaptation more about the individual scenes than an entire work.
On the island Carol is Max’s kindred spirit. They are of the same mold: in need of friendship and unconditional love. And they love destruction. Through Carol and the other Wild Things, Max learns to better understand himself and how his outbursts at home have severed the emotional bond with his mother.
And on this mystical island, you watch in awe of how liberating it is: a landscape of jungles and deserts. The Wild Things have their own distinct personalities too, each highlighted by the voice actors assembled: the above-mentioned Gandolfini, Catherine O’Hara, Lauren Ambrose, Chris Cooper, Paul Dano and Forest Whitaker. The giant puppets may not look real, but Jonze wasn’t trying to create Gollum from Lord of the Rings here. He wanted something that looked cute but could also be threatening when enraged. (With that note, the primal screams and destructive acts of the Wild Things might frighten little ones.) Jonze takes those brilliantly illustrated pages as inspiration and is able to strike the right balance of puppetry, CGI and live-action.
Where the Wild Things Are is a colorful film bursting at the seams, as well as an ambitious family film with a hefty $80 million price tag. I have my doubts about its success in theaters, but it could develop a cult following in the years to come.
Travis Leamons is one of the Inside Pulse Originals and currently holds the position of Managing Editor at Inside Pulse Movies. He's told that the position is his until he's dead or if "The Boss" can find somebody better. I expect the best and I give the best. Here's the beer. Here's the entertainment. Now have fun. That's an order!
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