Friends, Family, Monsters
Emotional release in a strange land
by Molly Templeton
WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE: Directed by Spike Jonze. Written by Jonze and Dave Eggers. Cinematography, Lance Acord. Editor, Eric Zumbrunnen. Music, Karen O and Carter Burwell. Starring Max Records, Catherine Keener, James Gandolfini, Catherine O’Hara, Forest Whitaker, Lauren Ambrose, Paul Dano and Chris Cooper. Warner Bros., 2009. PG.
Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are is a small and perfect thing, a book of a few sentences and several dozen unforgettable illustrations. The book’s editor, Ursula Nordstrom, wrote to its author that Wild Things was “MOST MAGNIFICENT” — in all caps like that, no less. Sendak’s book is the story of Max, who misbehaves, is sent to bed without supper and, in his room, concocts a world of wild things that might want to eat him and might want to make him their king. It’s a little scary, but it’s Max’s world, from which he safely returns home while dinner is still hot. Spike Jonze’s movie — written with Dave Eggers — expands on Max’s story, making it into an entirely different animal that is, in a strange, moody, shifty way, MOST MAGNIFICENT as well.
Jonze’s Max (Max Records) is a gorgeous kid whose moods are like anyone else’s, except that we learn to put a leash on them when we grow up. He’s delighted, creative, heartbroken, furious, curious and gentle in the span of minutes. While a teacher rambles on, blasé, about the eventual death of the sun and the catastrophes that will befall humanity long before then, Max’s eyes grow wider and wider: something else to worry about. Already his father is out of the picture, his sister is growing up without him and his mother is distracted by a boyfriend. It’s almost uncomfortable, all this detail about why Max goes to the world of the wild things; like the moment later when someone points out that being a family is hard, it’s too clear, too spelled-out, for this child’s world of desire and fear and exhilaration.
But when Max runs away to the world of the wild things, the film is nearly wordless for a time. Max’s boat trip is dangerous and scary, and the world of the wild things no less so at first: He comes upon them arguing in a dark forest, fires burning in the background. Huge, hairy, dirty, sulky things, they tower over Max, their faces frighteningly (and amazingly) expressive. When Max arrives, he sees Carol (James Gandolfini) destroying things and jumps right in, only to find that everyone else disapproves. Max is picking up right where he left off at home, making mistakes, but here, he has the power to change what happens next.
Not all the film’s parallels are so overt; characters blend and share the traits Max sees in people in the real world, which informs Max’s wild world without dominating it. The wild things’ world is a place of possibility, a place to explore what happens when you do things, whether those things are constructive, destructive, beautiful or ugly. A place like that can never be entirely safe. The wild things are monsters and friends; their tempers, especially Carol’s, are as mercurial as Max’s. They come and go from the story; they take Max’s place in scenarios, so he can see them from the other side; they do the unexpected, making scary things safe and safe things scary. They do the things that stories do.
Where the Wild Things Are is like the world it imagines: rough around the edges but beautiful at the core. It’s a film that creates an emotional world as much as a visual one; it’s a cinematic representation of the way remembering childhood feels. The quick tides of childhood don’t suit the considered, controlled world of adulthood, but all that need and love and curiosity is still there — or can be. Jonze, in trying to make a movie about childhood, made a movie about life. Could he have done anything else?
Where the Wild Things Are opens Friday, Oct. 16, at Cinemark and VRC Stadium 15.