First things first. The movie version of Where The Wild Things Are, directed by Spike Jonze from a script by Jonze and “staggering genius” Dave Eggers and soundtracked by hipster goddess Karen O, is not an exact, faithful translation of the beloved children’s book to the screen. Were the movie to be such a precise translation, a la the first couple of Harry Potter films, it would be:
Roughly 8 minutes long.
Almost completely devoid of dialog.
Probably not a terribly good movie.
Now, before the purists start besieging Green Man Review with emails demanding my removal as a reviewer, let me state categorically that Where The Wild Things Are is a wonderful, magical book. As it is written, however, it doesn’t have the structure to support a direct, literal adaptation. To paraphrase Ian McKellen’s commentary on the X-Men films, it’s a different medium and it has different demands. Enjoy it — or judge it — for what it is, don’t simply excoriate it for what it isn’t and can’t be.
All that being said, it was easy enough to look at the pedigree of the folks doing the adaptation and be afeared that it was going to come out as some sort of post-ironic hipster valentine to the notion of putting your furry suit on and just being your own wild thing. Thankfully, the film isn’t that at all. What it is, instead, is something moving and wonderful. It is a logical, loving exploration of and expansion on the themes of the book, bittersweet and joyous and knowing, all at once. No, it’s all not all Wild Rumpus, but then again, even the best wild rumpus has to end sometime, and then things start to get interesting.
Max (Max Records) is the younger child of single mom Katherine Keener. He’s not necessarily a bad kid, but he’s creative, frustrated, and temperamental, and when his attempt to attract the attention of his older sister for some playtime ends in disaster, his reaction is violent, thoughtless, and out of control. He does show remorse and help clean up, but the pattern is clear — cry for attention, furious reaction, regret.
The same pattern emerges when Mom has a date come over to the house. When Max tries and fails to attract her attention away from the slightly befuddled beau (Mark Ruffalo), he dons his wolf suit and acts out. Rather than accept that he can’t have everything his way — frozen corn here becomes a metaphor for the perceived unfairness of the world — Max keeps upping the ante until he goes ballistic and flees out into the night.
In the course of his flight, Max finds a small boat and climbs aboard. He doesn’t know where he’s going, only that it’s away, and that’s where he wants to be. A combination of rough seas and luck deposits him on a mysterious island, and that’s when Max meets the wild things.
Perhaps it’s the depiction of the wild things that irks the purists most. The titanic creatures Max finds are not merely jolly critters who enjoy rumpusing. They’re neurotic, nervous, overbearing, not actively evil but rather complicated. Max’s introduction to them is in the middle of a loud argument as Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini) is in the middle of demolishing their homes because KW (Lauren Ambrose) has left the group to be with her new friends. Carol is needy, enthusiastic, creative, and easily frustrated when things go wrong — in short, a larger-than-life version of Max — and when Max declares himself a king, Carol goes along with it because he think Max can “make everything better.” Of course Max can’t, and while his childish attempts to do so are well-meaning, they’re also ultimately destructive. For all the short-term good that greets Max’s anointing as king, he can’t possibly satisfy all of the expectations on him, not those he created and not those pushed upon him by the wild things who are desperate to have someone else solve their problems.
And yes, things do go wrong. People — and things — are hurt. But from the ashes of Max’s reign comes something else, a hint of rebirth and understanding. It’s sad and it’s understated and on the surface it looks like a betrayal of the book’s supposed carefree celebration, but that’s part of its magic. The audience, like Max and the wild things, wants the film to be a place where “nothing they don’t like ever happens”, where there’s a happy ending and no consequences and everything goes the way we want. That’s not possible — not for Max, not for the wild things, and not for us as viewers. Instead, we get something else, a sense that there’s more than just getting what you want, and that there’s value in things besides just what we want right here, right now.
If there’s a single false note in the film, it comes early when Max’s teacher starts expounding enthusiastically on the inevitable destruction of the sun and extinction of the human race. Last time I checked, this wasn’t standard elementary school science fodder, and the way it’s used to cram in some of Carol’s existential despair doesn’t ring quite true. Otherwise, though, the mood and tone is perfect all the way through. The cinematography matches perfectly the dream-like nature of the wild things’s island, small enough to walk across in minutes but huge enough to contain forests and forts and deserts and anything else imaginable. The score is simple but resonant, building on what feels like a structure of kids’ rhymes and schoolyard chants to echo the mood of the film.
And then there are the wild things, which look marvelously, thrillingly alive. A combination of costuming and CGI, they’re gifted with faces far more expressive than their gigantic maws would seem to allow. Their movement, too, is impressive, switching between aw-shucks lumbering and unbelievable expressions of brute force and power at a moment’s notice. In short, they feel like something out of a child’s imagination, threatening but cuddly, monstrous but accepting, and above all, recognizable as parts of Max himself.
Because really, there’s only one wild thing, and that’s Max. And that’s enough.
(Warner Brothers, 2009)