Screen Reviews
Where the Wild Things Are

Where the Wild Things Are

directed by Spike Jonze

starring Max Records, Catherine Keener, James Gandolfini, Paul Dano

Warner Brothers

When no one listens to you, you might try talking louder. Little Max (Record) can’t draw any attention in his divorced household and is reduced to ordering the fence around. Sister Claire (Pepita Emmerichs) is no help either – when her friends smash Max’s snow fort, she shrugs and heads off to the mall. The last straw arrives when mom (Keener) invites her new boyfriend over. Max freaks out and flees the house, discovers a magical sailboat, and heads out to sea. His Special World lies on the Island of Wild Things where he finds well-reasoned monsters who value his opinion and make him their King. This small colony has its own internal problems: some of the monsters have abandoned sleeping in a giant pile for snoozing in private twig huts; others have decided to strike out on their own for the ill defined reasons that tear apart any fragile relationship. Max temporarily unites them by arranging a wild monster rumpus and building a cool fort where “only things you want to happen, happen.” His new regime works for a while, but then reality sets in and Max finds himself on the outs with his new friends. He returns home, leaving his tearful monsters behind and reuniting with his equally tearful mother.

As children’s movies go, this is an odd one. Outstanding puppetry and masterfully restrained CGI create a surreal world of rugged landscape and even more rugged emotions. However, the often jerky camera work might induce nausea, and the film often uses low contrast lighting that looks murky. Max is touching, and each of the monsters has a clearly defined persona, from the depressing Judith (voice of Catherine O’Hara) to Ira, the guy who puts holes in the trees (voice of Forrest Whitaker), to Max’s best friend, the equally displaced Carol (voice of James Gandolfini). The action scenes are surprisingly violent, and show the inner rebellion of a child who is perfectly willing to dirt clod his best friend, for no better reason than that he can.

Director Jonze’s take on this classic children’s story seems more aimed at those who grew up with this book than those who might discover it today. The original story is rather short but carried by Maurice Sendak’s wonderful illustrations. Jonze has accurately reproduced those memorable images, but imbued the characters with a more nuanced and menacing inner life than we prefer to allow modern children to experience. The soundtrack by Karen O isn’t your usual kiddie melody; it sports a contemporary and hip Alt Rock sound and might even drift toward the microtonal. I suspect you can take children to see this with no distress to anyone involved, and there’s a fair chance this might become a classic someday. It’s certainly not the sappy formula that other major studios market and you don’t really need a child to enjoy the show.

Warner Brothers:

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