It’s easy to imagine a young Spike Jonze, say just 10 years old, running around his house like an unchained wrecking ball while his mother breathlessly chases him close behind. In fact, it’s very easy to imagine the full grown Jonze in a similar scenario; causing a creative ruckus on the set of his latest movie with producers and bean-counters desperately trying to pull him into line. So, what better director than he to realise Maurice Sendak’s classic picture book Where The Wild Things Are for the big screen?
Yes, this is the story of TWO feral boys and their untamed imaginations. One of them is of course Jonze, the filmmaker behind the brilliant Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and now Where the Wild Things Are. The other is Max (Max Records), a lonely young kid prone to leaving a trail of destruction in his wake. His single mother (the always reliable Catherine Keener) loves him, but she’s too distracted by her work and a new boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo) to see how alone he really is. In a fit of attention-seeking rage, Max dons his ‘wild thing’ outfit and ruins his mother’s date by … biting her. She yells at him and he runs out of their house into the night, eventually setting sail on an abandoned raft and landing on a (seemingly) uninhabited island.
Whether or not the following events take place in Max’s mind or the fantastical reality of the film is really up to you to decide. On the island, Max discovers a whole bunch of emotionally unstable monsters ready to gobble him up. He convinces them that he has powers so dangerous they dare not mess with him. The Wild Things believe Max and crown him their king, provided he employ at least one of his supposed powers: “Will you keep out all the sadness?” This is pretty much the extent of the plot of Where the Wild Things Are, but there is so much more to this film than I could ever communicate. There are few movies that can depict such rapturous joy and such profound sadness the way Jonze does here. Even fewer can switch back and forth as effortlessly as this. Special mention must go to cinematographer Lance Acord, whose camerawork evokes perfectly the melancholic and breathtaking feel of the film. It is the best looking movie of 2009.
The success of this picture rests upon the depiction of the Wild Things; the cause of much delay to the film’s release (filming began in April 2006). Instead of employing CGI, Jonze has cast actors to wear animatronic suits to bring the beasts to life. It’s perfect. Although the facial expressions have been computer enhanced, you might well think they are as organic as the hair on Max’s head. The voice actors also deserve credit for their wonderful performances. James Gandolfini voices Carol, the most temperamental and charming of the Wild Things, while Lauren Ambrose gives life to KW, a loner whose regular disappearances continually hurt Carol’s feelings. If the Academy ever decides to give nominations to actors for their voice work, these two would be worthy first-time nominees. They are also joined by Paul Dano, Chris Cooper, Catherine O’Hara and Forest Whitaker, who each portray characters too rich to dishonor with brief description here.
Where the Wild Things Are was adapted for the screen by Jonze and Dave Eggers, author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. In that book, Eggers related the true story of his parents’ premature deaths and his struggle to raise his younger brother on his own. The mood of the book (particularly the way it evokes both harmony and misery, often at the same time) has been impressed upon this new film, adding weight to Sendak’s relatively brief source material. With Jonze and Eggers writing the script and Yeah Yeah Yeah’s frontwoman Karen O penning the soundtrack, Where the Wild Things Are dances dangerously close to being a precious hipster extravaganza; a too perfect collaboration that could have either ended in tragedy or greatness. Kind of like when Zooey Deschanel married Ben Gibbard (saying that, I have high hopes for those two). Thankfully, the film soars.
This is not a movie for children. It is a profoundly adult film about childhood. There is an unspoken tragedy about being a kid and not realizing that you in fact won’t always be a kid. One day you too will have troubles and responsibilities. Spending an entire day building a fort won’t be a possibility. At the conclusion of Where the Wild Things Are, it feels as if Max is finally ready to grow up, even if that means facing all those unpleasant realities of, well, reality. Records gives a powerful and subtle performance to perfectly articulate these themes. This is not a coming-of-age film. It’s an end-of-innocence film. And that makes every moment, be it funny or sad, so beautiful and so heartbreaking at the same time. You’ll want to hug it and hold onto it, as if it were your childhood sailing away.