After hearing some of the backlash against Where the Wild Things Are I’ve decided to try to remain impartial. I understand the complaints that the movie is too dark and didn’t contain the sense of childlike whimsy that the original picture book depicted. I fully acknowledge that the movie is dark and emotional and certainly not a comedy for children in the vein of Cars or Rush Hour. Frankly, that’s why I like it.
This film has Maurice Sendak’s seal of approval. It isn’t childlike or whimsical, granted. It is harsh and real. It is deep and guttural. When the wild things roar you want to roar with them. And there’s nothing make believe about this movie. Everything that happens is very real. The wild things aren’t cartoons or stereotypes or rasta-ized to appeal to marketing numbskulls like their CGI predecessors, Jar Jar Binks and Matthew McConaughey, no. They are real people. Almost disturbingly real and astonishingly innocent. The wild things behave as though they were a colony of orphans left abandoned on the island, more Lord of the Flies than Peter Pan. Without any rules or social conventions, the wild things exist in a world where destroying your friend’s home isn’t immoral. It’s simply something to do.
Not only are the wild things desperate, they’re also out of ideas. When a strange child dressed as a wolf plummets into their lives they’re basically at the end of their ropes. Both socially and literally speaking the village is falling apart around them, and when Max (the aptly named actor Max Records) appears to them from nowhere, it’s easy to see why they mistake him for a savior. Still their society is in such upheaval that the wild things aren’t sure whether to hug Max or eat him. As the story unfolds, Max is forced to learn what it means to be a savior to a group of individuals and how difficult it is to be a parent figure to anyone.
I’m an unabashed fan of Spike Jonze. Adaptation is one of my all time favorite movies. Having said that, this might be Jonze’s masterpiece. I don’t know how much closer he could come to making a perfect film. Technically speaking it’s as if he captured the visual brilliance of Science of Sleep and attached a story to it that was actually likable. The wild things are a work of visual brilliance, and the voice work aside, it’s no shock that early set reports suggested that the process was problematic. The wild things are that brilliant blending of animation and tactile practical effects that really allow me to lose myself in a story. I don’t care whether or not they’re really real. To me the wild things are as real as you can possibly get on film.
As for the voice work itself Catherine O’Hara and James Gandolfini give some of their finest performances in this movie. It’s one of those rare instances, like Albert Brooks’ performance in Finding Nemo, where the voice work rivals some of the actors’ best live action work. James Gandolfini is alternatively adorable and terrifying. That’s a delicate tightrope to catwalk and he does it flawlessly. Catherine O’Hara has a troubled and snarky character to perform, which she does with incredible aplomb. Some have told me they were distracted by the voice of KW (Lauren Ambrose from Six Feet Under), but I never saw enough of that show to really make a mental record of the actress’s vocal patterns. She played the character well and had an honest charm that made her wild thing seem feminine in spite of its big hairy beard. Now that’s acting!
But back to the darkness, yes, there is plenty of it. What could have easily been a happy sunshine Disney romp is actually a childhood drama if anything. Max is a terror around the house, torturing the dog, biting family members and playing pranks on his sister. When the wild things ask him to be their king, they really should have asked for a background check. Max hooks the wild things on some grift about killing Vikings and the poor rubes actually buy it. While being king seems fun to Max at first it turns out to be a lot of work, and he finds out that when the monsters asked him to keep their sadness away, they weren’t kidding. The wild things are lonely, unappreciated and jealous. They seek approval from a higher authority. While Max has spent his entire childhood taking his family for granted, here is a group of creatures that seek nothing more than the comfort of knowing someone bigger cares for them.
I don’t want to spoil any more of the story for you, but just know that Where the Wild Things Are is an experience. It might not be quite what you expected, but I ask that you keep an open mind to the experience at hand. The beautiful sorrowful honesty contained in this picture is enough to remind any child at heart what it was really like to be a kid, without all the sugar coating. And look around you in the theater. The kids like it. (Remember, this is the Harry Potter generation. These kids eat death for breakfast.)