Reviewing one of my favourite films. It has consistently made me happy and warmed my heart. Here’s why…
Where the Wild Things Are (2009) (Dir. Spike Jonze)
“Please don’t go. I’ll eat you up I love you so”
Hollywood children’s films can often fall into polished and gentle clichés. Where the Wild Things Are defies these expectations by being very untamed and raw as director Spike Jonze, Oscar-nominated director (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) takes the fantasy from Maurice Sendak’s beloved children’s classic and filming it as if it were absolutely real, allowing us to see the world through Max’s eyes, a world full of beauty and terror.
Max (Records) is stuck in a dark reality called home where his mum, juggling her stressful job and new boyfriend, and teenage sister don’t give him the attention he needs. The movie kicks off after his sister and her friends smash Max’s igloo with him in it, leaving him teary-eyed and pummeled. Due to his mother not giving him the attention he wants, when her new boyfriend comes over for dinner, Max has one of his outbursts and bites her before sailing away to where the Wild Things are.
Newly discovered, Max Records exhibits a very naturalistic performance that is definitely a high water mark for child actors. Considering he was a child acting to big puppets with no facial expressions, Records was phenomenal at conveying emotion and involvement with the Wild Things. On top of this, voice work of the Wild Things is done brilliantly by actors such as James Gandolfini who masters Carol, the creature leader who Max bonds with the most and Lauren Ambrose voices KW, the distant red-head, who’s presence unreliable. Catherine O’Hara encompasses the sass needed for Judith, working well with her better half, Ira (Forest Whitaker). Chris Cooper takes on the loyal Douglas and Paul Dano gives a touching performance of being the ignored creature, Alexander. The complements of the voice actors stem from the fact that they were not recorded singly in a sound booth, but altogether and were encouraged to cut across each other and be spontaneous, thus strengthens the gritty feel of the movie.
The actual children’s book by Sendak consists of about 10 sentences, therefore giving Spike Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers much creative space to flesh it out and find a more touching and deep film. Jonze took all the Wild Things shown in the book (unnamed and undeveloped) and made each one represents aspects of Max’s personality. Lead Thing, Carol is Max’s creativity and his violent, destructive side, which is why he’s closest to Max in the film as they are his most exuberant emotions. KW is Max’s love for his sister and mother (and abandoned father) who he fears will leave him to be with others, shown though the mirroring of Max’s sister leaving him to be with her friends and KW leaving Carol to be with Bob and Terry. Ira is his mellow side, Judith his stubbornness, Douglas his logic, Alexander his insecurity, and the unnamed bull, in the background, his sadness. In juxtaposition to their name, the Wild Things are very human and reflect everything that’s going on in Max’s life, essentially trading one dysfunctional family for another and finds himself, again, fearing his family falling apart. For a while, Max pacifies everyone with the promise that his invisible “sadness shield” will guard them all from “all the loneliness”, but it eventually proves inadequate to stop the onward march of time that is turning the world of the Wild Things — and everything in it — to dust. Max’s talk with Carol about the sun dying demonstrates this idea of the world through Max’s mind, that if he doesn’t keep everyone together, his world will collapse and “I don’t even know what comes after dust”.
This film has a strange feel to it, but, as a director, Spike Jonze is the king of strange, like a portal into John Malkovich’s brain or a film about writing the film you are seeing. He also keeps Where the Wild Things Are in a child-like atmosphere with all the bickering and the idea of being in love (Judith and Ira) as hitting each other. With an added bonus of proper out and about running, jumping, howling and eventually a big pile to sleep in. The fact that there were really actors inside these nine-foot creatures that are actually interacting with each other and Max as well as having cables to jump around enhances the reality of this world for Max. The nostalgic and homesick feelings of the film can also be attributed to the extremely well done hand held from cameraman Lance Acord, but mainly from the beautiful original soundtrack by Karen O and the Kids, which wonderfully portrays the wild, rough and playful place Max can call his kingdom.
Whilst not being a cliché children’s film, the film is still very pure and simple in its messages making them all the more moving. This tearjerker of a film is one of the most sensitive and psychologically intense movie about childhood, using CGI but not for explosions or battles, but for emotion and reality from the Wild Things. Spike Jonze has performed way above what anyone would expect of an adaptation of Sendak’s not very sentimental story and has wonderfully turned it into a much deeper picture.
I can watch it over and over again and still feel as touched as I did in my first cinema viewing.
By Freyja Pakarinen