Where the Wild Things Are is a masterpiece — a remarkably wondrous fable about a fantastic land, an earthy parable about imagination and emotion and a meditative elegy for childhood viewpoints from which we must all move on.
This is the miraculous result of Warner Brothers handing over Maurice Sendak’s property to director / co-writer Spike Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers, and leaving the trio alone. (Thankfully, talk of reshooting the entire film never came to pass.)
It’s fun but not flippant, adventurous but not adrenalized, intense but not inappropriate, sentimental but not saccharine and melancholy but never morose. At every turn where it could falter, Wild Things instead builds on preceding strengths.
That’s because Jonze is a filmmaker who focuses on the nuts and bolts of imagination as much as on the bells and whistles. Take the cosmically slippery line between jolting fiction and withering fact in Adaptation., or how sad, mundane reality colored choices of those inside a superstar’s body in Being John Malkovich.
And Eggers, overly pretentious and precious as A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius could be, knows firsthand the psychological perils of childhood.
Together, they make Wild Things play like Malkovich for an audience still thrilling at building forts from couch pillows and bed sheets. It’s a natural, unforced elasticity to Sendak’s simple story.
Max — the defiant, petulant, impulsive, lonely and creative 9-year-old protagonist — has a blank slate on which to project his wildest dreams. Even in a world of magical creatures, angst prevails. Max is aware that his imagination is simultaneously an escape from, and evocation of, his reality — a coping mechanism.
Overly cautious, coddling parents content to sit through another thickheaded adaptation of a thin-paged children’s book might not see the discussion-provoking wonder in that. (There are no villains, no missions, no simple cure-all answers.)
When you’re 9, it’s easy to vilify things behind which there’s no malicious intent, and that’s what Max does in a bracing prologue. His older sister has left him behind as a playmate, tending to her growing interest in boys. His single mother (Catherine Keener) strains under the stress of work and romance, but still gains solace from Max. However, Max acts out because he feels squeezed out.
Max fills this void of perceived abandonment with tales of vampires biting buildings and destructively bad behavior. After biting his mother in a fit of rage one night, he runs away to the banks of a river where a sailboat awaits. Purists may bemoan Max’s room not morphing into a jungle, but it allows a brilliant large-scale recreation of a previous playtime scene.
Max comes ashore on the island of the Wild Things — a geographical dreamscape where forests, seas and deserts melt together. Lance Acord’s sweeping cinematography is warm throughout, while also game for widescreen sight gags.
There, Max is besieged by the Wild Things — giant, lumbering creatures wreaking havoc in the forest. A high-tech / low-tech mixture of actors in suits and computer-generated faces, Sonny Gerasimowicz’s creature design is remarkable. Freedom of movement is so thorough that they pick up clumps of leaves in their haunches, and feelings beam through with the most emotionally lifelike digital faces since Gollum.
In a bid to avoid being eaten, Max persuades the Wild Things he’s theirking, and he leads them on wild rumpses, dirt-clod fights, alternately humorous and heartwarming exchanges of dialogue and the ultimate fort-building project. A score and songs by Carter Burwell and Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman Karen O. enrich the heedless zeal of every sequence.
Jonze and Eggers explain why Max can hold court over the Wild Things in a manner simple enough for kids to detect without also pandering to adults. Each one evokes an aspect of Max’s home life, with spirited vocal-work byplay that’s all too rare. (The actors recorded their voiceovers together, rather than in separate sessions.)
Ira (Forest Whitaker) is a barehanded demolitions expert. Judith (Catherine O’Hara) acts like a “nagging” mother. Douglas (Chris Cooper) is the voice of reason. Alexander (Paul Dano) is the eager-to-please loner. KW (Lauren Ambrose) resembles Max’s sister in more ways than her red hair. There’s also the silent, lurking Bull, who could roar at any time.
Finally, there’s Carol, given verbal life by James Gandolfini in a voiceover performance so grand and nuanced you’ll wish there were an Oscar category for it.
Like Max, Carol is large and contains multitudes — calming and fatherly one moment, panicked and breathily desperate the next. It is through Carol that Max learns the Wild Things are not without their own neuroses, and the movie turns evermore soulful, contemplative and cathartic as he learns what it means to be “king.”
Where the Wild Things Are encourages embracing all that we are, but it’s not presumptuous to suggest what “it” is. Jonze and Eggers know that’s not the same for every child. Profoundly and unexpectedly moving, it urges a coexistence of love, responsibility, compassion and rambunctiousness that is intelligent and intimate. Unforgettably organic and otherworldly, it’s one of the best films of 2009.