Written by Spike Jonze and David Eggers
Directed by Spike Jonze
Starring Max Records, Catherine Keener and Mark Ruffalo
Voices by James Gandolfini, Catherine O’Hara, Forest Whitaker, Chris Cooper and Lauren Ambrose
Judith: Happiness isn’t always the best way to become happy.
It’s been a fair amount of time since I was a young boy. Fortunately for me, it has not been so long that I have grown past the age where I can get completely lost in the wonderful world of Spike Jonze’s WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE. Jonze must have had to fight his own wild beasts during his lengthy and tumultuous journey to bring the 1963 Maurice Sendak classic picturebook to such exquisite life. Originally due to be released in the spring of 2008, Jonze had to fight the studio to make the film he wanted and believed in when it was being criticized for being too dark a work to be considered a family film. A year and a half later, Jonze has made a film that both parties are happy with and, while it still may be too dark to play to the littler ones, WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE is a modern family classic in every possible sense.
In the original Sendak tale, Max (played here by the precocious boy with the power name, Max Records) is sent to bed without supper for being bad. From there, he escapes to another world complete with a monster community that he incorporates himself into quite nicely. When his adventures are over, he returns home to find a plate of food waiting for him by his bed. At under 500 words, it’s pretty sparse but Jonze, alongside AWAY WE GO co-writer and novelist, David Eggers, has transformed WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE into a contemporary exploration of how a child might deal with the changing face of his family and finding a way to fit in it. Max’s Mom (Catherine Keener) still sends him to bed without supper for acting up but his wild outburst now has context and his adventure offers a healing that stretches past the troubled boy to touch the inner child of anyone watching.
The wild things themselves are mostly giant, furry monsters and precisely where Max stumbles upon them is never pinpointed but, once he gets there, he declares himself king and rightfully so. After all, this place is essentially inside his head and even with the wild things running, well, wild in there, he is still aware enough to know that he is in charge of all these extensions of his own personality. Max’s family issues are mirrored in Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini), a monster with his own difficulties keeping his rage in check. Whether the monsters and Max are trying to build a perfect living space or whether they are just pouncing on top of each other in one big giant pile, they are doing things together and the conversations that take place in between are simple musings, not unlike those that Max might have with himself in his mind. Never do Max’s two worlds resolve each other perfectly but nor could one live without the other.
WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE is simply unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The screenplay is elegant and uncomplicated; its ferocious beauty is matched only by the magnificence of its aesthetic. With the help of two-time collaborator and handheld guru, Lance Acord, Jonze creates a world that is at times tender and warm while at others, frightening and fragile. Who would ever expect a family film to be so visceral, let alone so disarming? Learning to accept your family, or even life, as it is can be difficult at any age but leaning into it brings security and tames the wildness of the mind. Perhaps we all could stand to learn a lesson from Max and get a little wild when needed instead of always quieting what needs to get out. While WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE may be lost on the truly young, it will not be lost on the young at heart.