Directed by Spike Jonze
Released in 2009
"Well, that was underwhelming." That was the first thought I had when I left the theater after seeing Where The Wild Things Are. The movie lacked focus, it did not pack the punch of emotion like I expected it to and the ending seemed abrupt. I was ready to cast the film aside and call it a disappointment. That was until I gave it some time to sit, to digest. The greatness of some films is not always apparent from the initial impressions; upon leaving Inglourious Basterds I knew I had seen a mad masterpiece but I didn't appreciate the perfection that is Dr. Strangelove until a second viewing. Where The Wild Things Are is no exception; beneath the cuddly, kid movie surface lies a film that is one of the deepest and emotional tales I have seen in years.
Initially, let me explain the general premise to the uninitiated: Where The Wild Things Are is based off the beloved children's book by Maurice Sendak, released in 1963 and featured in the childhood of millions of American children since. The book is only 10 sentences long and, thus, hard to adapt to a full-length feature film. However, screenwriters Spike Jonze (also the director) and Dave Eggers take the overall premise of the picture book as well as the aesthetic look and make something entirely their own. This film is dark. Children may be fooled into believing that the playful creatures that are featured in the trailer only serve as one-dimensional playful objects but that is a false assumption. They occasionally look very frightening, act violently and behave in such intemperate ways that may even cause nightmares among the youth. Still, if a child has an open mind and a knack for analysis (I want to meet this kid), he or she will thoroughly enjoy this film.
In terms of plot, Where The Wild Things Are is the story about Max, played by the aptly named Max Records, who lives an imaginative yet lonely life at home. His sister has miserable friends who tear down his ice sculptures and she only looks on with mild disapproval, not acting or even being apologetic. Max's mom, with the ever reliable Catherine Keener at the helm, is a caricature of a mother that sadly exists in the real world but would make any mother, despite some similarities with this character, cringe. She is a divorcee or single mom from unknown circumstances, though it is fairly sure that the father walked out on the family early on. During a date with a man played by Mark Ruffalo (featured for maybe 40 seconds of screen time), she ignores Max despite his incessant pleads for attention. This culminates to Max embarrassing himself and his mother in front of this "date," much to mom's chagrin, and Max fleeing his house without looking back. All the while, he is dressed up in a wolf suit. Looking for liberation, he finds a sailboat and takes it to a faraway island where he encounters the Wild Things. They are about to eat him when he reveals to them his "magical powers" that are so powerful that he could make "people's heads explode." Clearly a manufactured lie, this excuse is bought by the creatures and they crown him king. From then on, the plot is not the focus.
The problem I had with the film upon conclusion was how it just meandered along, with no general concrete plot beneath it all. Max and the Wild Things have fun by engaging in a "Rumpus" or having a "dirt clod" fight, all featuring breaking stuff or throwing things in some way. There are scenes between these events such as the building of a large fort "where only the things you want to happen, would happen." There is never any sense of progression; the film's approach is very freewheeling and loose. However, this is revealed to not be the film's true value or even necessity.
Where The Wild Things Are's weapon is symbolism. It wields it often and with the grace of a poet. A second viewing of the film may be mandatory to truly appreciate the detail and effort that went into it. The Wild Things are comprised of seven different creatures: humble, loving Ira (Forest Whittaker), the mute and menacing Bull (Michael Berry Jr.), Judith, the pessimistic and rebellious one (an excellent Catherine O'Hara), the sympathetic yet plainly pathetic goat creature Alexander (Paul Dano), the consistently loyal Douglas (Chris Cooper), the affectionate and motherly figure KW (Lauren Ambrose) and, last but not least, the leading figure, Carol (James Gandolfini). These different creatures all represent a different aspect of Max's mind, thus showing the multiple personalities he has. He finds Carol to be the closest like him, accepting him without hesitation from the start. Max also sees the worst of himself in Carol, shown by the hostility between them near the end. Carol goes on anger tantrums, tearing apart their houses which reminds Max of his similar situations at home when he wrecked his own house. This bond proves to be the film's strongest point, as evidenced by the bittersweet conclusion. When Max sails back home, Carol runs to him in an emotionally devastated state, finally cognizant of the harm his ignorance has caused. He is unable to embrace Max for one last time but emits a howl of such shaky sentimental stature that only tears or ignorant laughs from the audience will result. As Max sails into the sunset, Carol gets a last look at the boy who revealed the best and worst in him. The analogy here is how Max's father recklessly abandoned his family but did not realize his mistake until it was too late. The father misses his family dearly now, just as Carol's tears show, but will never be able to partake in that final endearment. Upon realizing this revelation, I was torn. Not in a long time has a film hit me with such an emotional blow.
Truly, the film can be endlessly perused and analyzed for small details that carry significance. And they are there. Watch KW's introduction of the mysterious Bob and Terry and try not to think about the mother's date with that special individual or even the sister's unworthy friends. Better yet, Carol goes on a tantrum and reacts violently against Douglas who spouts the best line of the film regarding his "favorite arm." That, again, relates to Max's real world and Carol's pathetic excuses only make Max realize how immature he has become. The final salute to childhood will strike a chord with the high school crowd as shown by my thoughts. We are stuck in the middle between child and adult, not knowing when it is safe to set sail for the life of responsibility that lies ahead. But, shown by Max's journey, we all have the bravery to take that leap of faith. Clearly, there is no doubt that symbolism is this film's source of significance and emotion. Anyone who ponders the events of the screen will ultimately gain much satisfaction from realizing what was behind the cuddly exterior.
But what an exterior it is. Shot entirely in live action, Where The Wild Things Are takes an innovative approach at CGI through its natural blend of fantastical creatures in a real world. The Wild Things were filmed in costume with a static face; this was later changed when the voice talent was added and the faces emoted digital yet very lifelike feelings. They contain a stunning level of detail and emotional range that captures the nuances of every happy, sad or anger-filled moment. Complementing this triumph in imagery is the beautiful cinematography. Filmed in Australia, Where The Wild Things Are takes place on a wonderful island with great variety shown by the lush forests yet stark deserts adjacent to each other. While logically impossible (this is a fantasy story after all), this antithesis in environment only amplifies the beauty of everything else.
In the end, Where The Wild Things Are is a unique, fascinating film. Never before have I had such a 180° turnaround on a film from utter disappointment to unhinged love. The characters, and the true meaning that lies beneath them all, are fully developed even when they may seem shallow initially. The absolutely stunning visual work only helps the film's cause in the end as well, portraying the film's message about childhood even more effectively. I am not disappointed by Where The Wild Things Are: I love it. Maybe my irrational dismissal of the film without truly comprehending what I saw suggests I have some growing up to do myself.