Where the Wild Things Are Review: An Imaginative yet Mournful Film Lacking Realization

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Leave it to the unique vision of Spike Jonze to attempt bringing a short tale of childhood solitude that is opened up through unreserved imagination to life. Where the Wild Things Are, a short story written by Maurice Sendak, barely has 10 sentences throughout the story yet Jonze has stretched and twisted the very essence and heart of the story into a well rounded but repetitively paced feature film adaptation. Taking drastic liberties with the flimsy, practically plot less short story, Where the Wild Things Are does explore the depth of being a child but doesn’t necessarily dwell any deeper as the film’s conclusion hits an uneasy and melancholy note. Where Jonze succeeds is mostly in the intimate build up of our protagonist Max, played astoundingly well by newcomer Max Records, and how this sets a developed base throughout his explored imagination in the rest of the film. However, a realization of longing for genuine love in the short story has turned into something much more serious and existential in Jonze’s adaptation, which has it’s strengths but also it’s inevitable faults. Personal liberties were expected especially from such an imaginative director but the overall message of the story gets turned upside down and becomes drastically foreboding instead of hopeful or enduring. A delightful children’s tale with deep innocence has become an existential magnifying glass on our inevitable feeble selves.

Spike Jonze has co-written Where the Wild Things Are with Dave Eggers already taking a different direction from his last two theatrical releases both of which were written by Charlie Kaufman. Depending on his own creative vision to develop a worth while story, Jonze tightly knits a beginning for this adventure tale that successfully fills in the blanks from the short story. Our protagonist Max is introduced in guerilla style stampeding around the house growling and chasing his dog. The wild child couldn’t be captured any better as he weaves in and out of the frame. From then on our introduction to Max’s world goes deeper into exploring divorce, age gap from his older sister, imaginative solitude, and childhood temper tantrums. While Max’s mother is faceless in the book that is by far the case in this film as Catherine Keener fills the role with warmth and delicate understanding. Instead of being sent to his room with an order to be fed, although the “feed me woman” is still very much present in the film, Max gets violent and bites his mother in protest over her new boyfriend being over at the house. Max then runs away, both literally and figuratively, as he jolts into a park to find a boat that takes him on his imagination adventure. He reaches an island where he encounters a group of large monsters destroying their homes led more or less by the manic depressive Carol, who is appropriately voiced by James Gandolfini. Once Max establishes himself among the group, after a horrifying scene where the monsters surround and contemplate eating him, the wild rumpus begins and is elongated as an on and off thematic element to the film interspersed with relationship ups and downs. Jonze and Eggers explore some vastly adult themes in the relationships that proceed throughout the film, a concept that will most likely alienate younger audiences due to a lack of understanding. However, there is an element of profound storytelling that cannot be denied despite the message drifting far away from the short stories original intent.

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Visually Where the Wild Things Are is stunning and couldn’t have been more appropriately shot. Jonze’s loyal cinematographer Lance Acord captures every scene’s tone as it resonates through the emotions of the characters and makes for an interesting and vibrant atmosphere. Making every low angle accentuate Max’s perspective as a child, Acord does indeed make this a childlike point of view throughout the film. Another subjective element is the beautiful score from Karen O and Carter Burwell, which Max hums the theme in the beginning of the film and is repeated throughout his world of imagination. There is no doubt that Jonze brough together a great crew, from art direction to editing, to bring this seemingly impossible world to life. The effective use of large puppets as the monsters seems quite real in and of itself and the choice to use digital animation for the monster’s mouths was better than the original puppetry. Even the voice actors including Catherine O’Hara, Paul Dano, Chris Cooper, and Forrest Whitaker, all embody the dysfunctional and unique personalities of each and every monster, making it a beautifully put together film in concept if not in its final product.

There is just an incredibly uneasy conclusion to this film, one that is depressing, mournful, and melancholy. While not giving anything away the film basically fantasizes about being a child yet is mournful of the unavoidable road of growing up. Max partially grows up in the film as he replays all of the roles in his real world, an example is yelling at Carol that he is out of control a parallel to Max’s mother, yet as he leaves the mournful howling from Carol and the other monsters express quite different message than the book. In the book Max realizes the imaginary world doesn’t contain the real love he has from actual human connection at home from his mother, yet in the film he leaves for entirely different reasons, mainly due to the fact that he has made things worse off on the island. Max’s fear of change and succumbing to the existential inevitable that he is powerless against the tides of mortality, a fear brought on from his teacher telling 9 year olds that the human race will eventually die out to calamity’s even before the sun dies out, is too much of an adult philosophical crisis that children couldn’t possibly understand. The film is mostly a draw of nostalgia for those who grew up with the beloved story but twists the innocence of the story into that of mortal foreboding. The monsters aren’t particularly wild the entire time. In fact, they embody adult psychological problems and paranoia, including suicidal tendencies, depression, lack of acceptance, and even violent denial. Max is definitely a child that reacts violently in a tantrum when things do not necessarily go his way but runs away when the world acts violently back. Jonze examines a child that comes to no truthful realization, a child that never confronts nor understands a world outside of his own.

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As a film that stands on its own, Jonze has made a beautifully visual story of how freeing the imagination can be. However, standing as an adaptation the film is very far from capturing the heart of the short story that brought so much joy to children and adults growing up. Seeing as how Jonze’s previous two films, Being John Malkovitch and Adaptation, deal with incredibly adult themes it comes to no surprise as to how mournful Where the Wild Things Are ends. The film is potentially speaking to children as adults but makes no effort to transform the child in the film into an adult who doesn’t take responsibility for anything he does. Spike Jonze’s message is slightly too deep for children and a tad too under developed for most adults who can see past this intellectual posturing. There is no doubt that a lot of effort and creativity went into this project, something that is delectable for the eyes and ears, but the film just lacks the heart that would make Where the Wild Things Are an incredible journey of the imagination.

Grade: B

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Comments
One Response to “Where the Wild Things Are Review: An Imaginative yet Mournful Film Lacking Realization”
  1. Rob Greco says:

    Great review. I’m pretty much in agreement with the goods/bads that you have pin pointed.

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