Directed by: Spike Jonze
Premise: An adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s children’s book. After a fight with his mother, a young boy (Max Records) runs away from home and enters a fanciful land of large monsters.
What Works: Where the Wild Things Are is an extremely mature film with rich characterizations and complex interpersonal relationships. The interactions between the beasts, especially KW (voiced by Lauren Ambrose) and Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini), have much more depth and sophistication than a lot of characters in supposedly “adult” stories. Max Records is extremely well cast as the boy and he demonstrates a lot of subtlety in the performance; he plays to his monstrous fellow cast members as well as he does to the other human actors, selling the reality of both of them. The film does not sentimentalize or pander to its audience and its take on childhood and growing up does not idealize it. Instead, the film finds the real struggle of childhood in Max’s story and brings it to life through the imagination. Like The Fountain or Son of Rambow, Where the Wild Things Are is a meta-text about the value of fantasy stories and how they allow us to deal with the stress and banality of daily life. Generally in these types of stories there is a direct correlation between the fantasy and reality, with a fantastical character or plot device standing in for something from the real world of the story. Where the Wild Things Are complicates the relationship between the real and the fantastical by allowing Max to actually switch places, becoming the adult and having to take care of the wild things. This takes Max’s character into more difficult and more interesting places, forcing the character and the audience to think about what it means to grow up.
What Doesn’t: Although Where the Wild Things Are is adapted from a children’s book, the film is not aimed at children. Rather, the film has been made for adults who read the book growing up and the film plays as an extrapolation of the themes of wildness, responsibility, and maturation. It has a drab, realistic style and is not full of gags like many children’s films. While this should not be considered a strike against the film, parents should take note.
Bottom Line: Where the Wild Things Are is a terrific piece of fantastic and meta-textual filmmaking. It is a mature, complex piece of work about growing up and instead of pandering to the audience’s nostalgia, it makes us reexamine our conception of childhood and what it means to grow up.
Episode: #263 (November 1, 2009)