Film Review: Where The Wild Things Are

Posted in Film, Reviews
By Nick Deigman on 9 Dec 2009

Maurice Sendak’s 1965 children’s classic Where The Wild Things Are is one of those primal, infallible texts that have been around for long enough to inform the world-view of parents and children alike. Like Lewis Carroll’s poems and Aesop’s fables, it is a brutally simple tale reminding us of the Dionysian chaos and fury that lurks beneath the surface of our manicured lives. So who better to bring this warped and wonderful story to the big screen than the ‘realiseur’ of Charlie Kaufman’s most famous scripts, the possessor of a juvenile, Jackass sense of fun, and the inventor of a raw and powerful aesthetic that defined a generation of skateboarding, Sonic Youth fans… Spike Jonze.

Jonze has already stamped his mark on the film before the first frame; the ‘title cards’ for the various studios and production companies have been defaced with childish scribbles. The opening section of the film, before Max escapes to his fantasy realm, is incredibly intimate but volatile, and perfectly sets up the resulting ‘dream’ story. For all the design and aesthetic purpose of the rest of the film, the opening section is all natural light and awkward camera frames; but we are helplessly drawn into the world of this confused and helpless child long before he escapes into the world of the Wild Things.

Max Records seems to represent everything Jonze wants to say in this film: he is not the two-dimensional rascal of Sendak’s book, he is a changeable, quiet, passionate young boy. He is capable of showing boundless love for his mother and sister, but if they fail to pay him enough attention he will rage against them with a terrifying ferocity. Jonze explores these subtle, childhood quirks in a simple, unflattering way.

Jonze substitutes the dark, menacing visual imagery of Sendak’s book for more vibrant palettes and dusky settings. Allowing nature to take its course during filming, Jonze spared little thought for temporal consistency, choosing instead to just shoot whenever he felt like it. The result is a story world that seems to exist in some endless sunset, where the wild things sleep in daylight and stay up all night by firelight.

The specific forest locations of Melbourne, Australia were chosen because they were burnt out and presented the art department with a clean slate. But for all the bewitching beauty of the flowers and the snow, there is still a barrenness to the settings that mimics the emptiness at the heart of the Wild Things. All they want is for Max to keep the sadness away.

The Wild Things of the book – all spiny fur, sharp teeth, and primordial ‘group think’ – are now cuddly, soft-furred creatures from the Jim Henson workshop. They are wonderfully well-rounded individuals with pride and fear and dependency issues, just desperately searching for a way to block out the existential sadness that hangs over them like a thick carbon monoxide haze.

While CGI has been used on their faces, the Wild Things themselves are actors in costumes. Jonze was adamant that this should be the case; he wanted to see the sand trapped in their soft fur, and sense their ‘weight’, and these things would not have been possible with the illusions of CGI.

James Gandolfini and Lauren Ambrose are the star attractions in this band of creatures. Gandolfini’s animalistic pride made Tony Soprano one of the best-loved characters in television history. He was a cuddly killer, a cheerful, doting, cold-blooded gangster – and Carol isn’t so very different. He is the wild thing that welcomes Max into the group, but his pride and relationship issues with KW make him a volatile, easily hurt, dangerous creature. Similarly, Lauren Ambrose’s sulking, passionate teenage daughter was an achingly engaging and beautiful character in Six Feet Under; and she brings the same bittersweet melancholy to KW.

Their relationship is the most wonderful thing about this film. Jonze has perfectly realised the perspective of a child trying to understand an adult relationship. Assuming that this whole Wild world is a figment of Max’s imagination, it is obviously impossible for him to comprehend the more ‘adult’ factors that complicate relationships, and so Max substitutes petty arguments about “treading on the ‘head’ part of my head” and “this is why I don’t like playing with you any more”. The beauty of this simplicity is that, however seemingly complicated an adult relationship becomes; it rarely involves anything more complex than these childish impulses towards guilt and jealousy. Carol and KW are two adults engaged in a relationship that exposes how childish they really are, and that is something I am sure most adults could relate to.

This is most certainly a film about children, and not necessarily for them. As a result, Jonze has foregone a lot of the traditional conflict and drama expected of a feature film in favour of examining the earth-shattering importance of seemingly trivial events in the eyes of a young child. Unfortunately, this means that any viewer who is not a passionate fan of Spike Jonze or Maurice Sendak might feel that the film falls slightly flat. There are no simple answers, and not that many obvious questions, in the story; but there is a beautiful and languid testament to the importance of remembering how powerful our childhoods really were.

★★★★

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