Where the Wild Things Are

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A visionary director, with two original films to his credit ("Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation"), Spike Jonze adds another distinctive panel to his slowly growing oeuvre with "Where Wild Things Are," an enchanting adaptation of Maurice Sendak's classic book of the same title.

Written and illustrated by Sendak in 1963, "Where Wild Things Are" earned a Caldecott Medal and went on to touch millions of readers worldwide.  The book was ranked by Publishers Weekly as one of the 10 all-time best-selling books for children since the 1970s.
Facing the greatest artistic challenge of his career to date, one that has taken half a decade and a budget north of $80 million to execute, Jonze has made an adult movie about childhood for both young and mature viewers, rather than a children's movie per se.  His movie, like the source material, does not talk down to young people.
Jonze chose novelist Dave Eggers for collaboration on the screenplay, and the fact that Eggers has not done any script before proves to be an advantage–their scenario is not movieish in any way. As in his former films, Jonze's strategy is to place eccentric outsider characters into unfamiliar, threatening situations, where they might not have been in before, and then force them to cope with those situations in a fresh, individualized manner.
Assuming the classic shape of a fairy tale, the minimalist story centers on Max (Max Records), a rambunctious but bright and sensitive boy who feels misunderstood at home by his single mom (Catherine Keener), spending most of his time alone.  In brief strokes, the first reel depicts Max's chaotic life at home, where most things are out of his control.  Not only are Max's parents divorced and his mom has a boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo), but his sister has reached adolescence and has abandoned him for other friends and interests. In short, all the people around him are too busy to grant him the attention and love that he needs. 
 
A trivial but recurrent argument with his mother over dinner prompts Max to escape to the great, limitless outdoors, to where the Wild Things are. A rocky, dangerous boat trip lands Max on an island where he meets mysterious and strange creatures whose emotions are as wild and unpredictable as their actions.
 
The Wild Things desperately long for a leader to guide them, just as Max longs for a kingdom to rule. When Max is crowned king, he promises to create a place where everyone will be happy. However, Max soon realizes that ruling a kingdom is not so easy and his relationships there prove to be more complicated than he had originally anticipated.

Quite audaciously, Jonze and Eggers have taken a captivating novel, known for his brevity (20 pages) and precision (10 sentences), and have expanded it to a full-length drama.  End result is an eccentric, deliberately paced feature that doesn't look like any other children's tale (or any other film, for that matter), but is more visually than dramatically compelling.  "Where Wild Things Are" is not consistently engaging from an emotional standpoint, leaving plenty of time for the viewers to ponder about what they're seeing. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but in today's climate of watching movies, the practice is almost non-existent.

Though enjoying Sendak's blessing and support, reportedly there was one significant change from the original book that the author questioned: The way Max enters the world of the Wild Things.  In the book, his bedroom transforms into a lush forest: "That very night in Max's room a forest grew, and grew — and grew until his ceiling hung with vines and the walls became the world all around."   In Jonze's picture, however, Max runs away from home, running down city streets and past dark parking lots until he finds a waterfront with a boat, and then he sails to the world of the Wild Things.
The best element of Jonze's vividly imagined adaptation is the acting, and the director should be commended for gathering an ensemble of gifted actors that, while covered with suits, still manage to be impressive and singular in both delivery of dialogues and behavioral gestures. Each of the participants is a fully conceived individual creature with motivations and behaviors all his/her own, defined by gender, physical appearance, marital status, and tangled social relationships.
Let me be more specific and illustrate this point.  James Gandolfini portrays the powerful de facto leader of the pack, Carol, hot-tempered but also vulnerable; he can switch from screaming to crying within seconds.  Lauren Ambrose is the free-spirited but melancholy KW, who enjoys the group dynamics but also needs time alone.  Chris Cooper is the energetic rooster-feathered Douglas. Perhaps best of all is Catherine O'Hara, as the sarcastic, negative and domineering Judith, who's given the wittiest and most cynical lines.  Forest Whitaker is Judith's modest and patient companion Ira, who's good at punching holes into things. Paul Dano is the diminutive goat-horned Alexander, only eight feet tall, which makes him feel he's never taken seriously enough.
Since the nominal text is rather simple, the poignancy of the film resides in its rich subtext, and what is shown and implied but not stated. By necessity, Jonze takes the slim adventure further than the printed volume, delving deeper into Max's world, the unknown terrain of the island and the impetus that brings him there.  In the process, he examines more fully the Wild Things, those volatile and endlessly expressive creatures, which represent the wild emotions within Max.
Entering into the mind and emotions of a young boy, the movie conveys what it's like to be 9 years old and trying to figure out the world, the people that are around, and emotions that are often unpredictable and confusing, to say the least.

At its good parts, which are plentiful, "Where the Wild Things Are" offers a fresh look at the many facets of childhood, particularly the tough ones, the isolation and loneliness, the inability to communicate with a parent and sibling.

The tale unfolds as a young boy's brave, risky journey to the island of the Wild Things, a magical forest, in which various encounters, physical, emotional and spiritual take place. The action sequences involve physical mayhem, such as dirt clod fights and rampaging in the forest. The island offers up a universal youngster's fantasy, the freedom from the confines of home and family to run around, jump and howl, to build and destroy, to wrestle and to reconcile, most of all to be a master of one's fate.
At first, clad in his wolf costume, the young Max becomes King of the Wild Things by proving his superior ferocity over the giant creatures that live there. But it's an uneasy reign, because, living up to their name, the Wild Things are wild, and there is always the threat that they might decide to eat him with their great sharp teeth. The tale dissects the notion of what it means–the joys, rewards, duties, and responsibilities–of being special (royal) or being a leader, as opposed to being ordinary or rank-and-file.

Ultimately, "Where Wild Things Are" records Max's steps toward growing up, and acquiring self-awareness, as he gains knowledge and becomes conscious of the complex relationships the individual Wild Things have with each other and with him. Told with honesty from a child's point of view, "Where the Wild Things Are" reveals Max's increasing understanding of his own feelings and the feelings of others.

The movie displays a unique visual conception, courtesy of Jonze and his the creative team, which is composed long-time collaborators, including director of photography Lance Acord, production designer K. K. Barrett, editor Eric Zumbrunnen, costume designer Casey Storm, and Karen O and Carter Burwell, who composed the music.

End Note

 
Concurrently with the film's bow in conventional theatres, "Where the Wild Things Are: The IMAX Experience" will be released in IMAX theatres, digitally re-mastered into the image and sound quality of The IMAX Experience through IMAX DMR technology. With crystal clear images, laser-aligned digital sound and maximized field of view, IMAX provides an extraordinarily immersive experience.
 
Cast
 
Max – Max Records
Mom – Catherine Keener
Boyfriend – Mark Ruffalo
KW – Lauren Ambrose
Douglas – Chris Cooper
Carol – James Gandolfini
Judith – Catherine O'Hara
Ira – Forest Whitaker
Alexander – Paul Dano

Credits
 
A Warner Bros. release presented in association with Legendary Pictures and Village Roadshow Pictures and KLG Film Invest of a Playtone/Wild Things production.
Produced by Tom Hanks, Gary Goetzman, John Carls, Maurice Sendak, Vincent Landay.
Executive producers, Thomas Tull, Jon Jashni, Scott Mednick, Bruce Berman.
Directed by Spike Jonze. Screenplay, Jonze, Dave Eggers, based on the book by Maurice Sendak.
Camera, Lance Acord.
Editors, Eric Zumbrunnen, James Haygood.
Music, Karen O, Carter Burwell; music supervisor, Ren Klyce.
Production designer, K.K. Barrett; supervising art director, Jeff Thorp; art director, Lucinda Thomson; set designers, Michael Bell, Tel Stolfo; set decorator, Lisa Thompson.
Costume designer, Casey Storm.
Creature costumes, Jim Henson's Creature Shop.
Sound, Gary Wilkins (Australia); sound designer, Klyce; re-recording mixers, Michael Semanick, Juan Peralta, Klyce.
Animation and visual effects supervisor, Daniel Jeannette; animation and visual effects, Framestore; animation supervisor, Michael Eames; visual effects supervisors, Marc Klobe, Ben Gibbs.
Associate producers, Natalie Farrey, Catherine Keener, Emma Wilcockson.
Assistant director, Thomas Patrick Smith.
Second unit director, John Mahaffie; second unit camera, Brad Shield.
Casting, Justine Baddeley, Kimberly Davis-Wagner.
 
MPAA Rating: PG.

Running time: 101 Minutes