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Review of Where the Wild Things Are By Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers 2009-10-16 04:30:00

Where the Wild Things Are: A Passionate Ode to Childhood

There's been a bit of a controversy over how to market Spike Jonze's adaptation of Maurice Sendak's classic children's book, Where The Wild Things Are. Is it for kids? Adults? Adult hipsters?

The answer is anyone who wants to feel what it's like to be a child, and not in the fun-loving, no-responsibilities way. As adults, we tend to forget the insecurity and fears we had as kids, which the film's young character Max is in the throes of. There's just enough exposition before the fantasy begins: Max has a single mom (Catherine Keener) and an older sister who has recently outgrown him. His first few acts at home show his innocence and the savage emotions under the surface. He knows it as being "wild."

Where the Wild Things Are isn't a heavy-handed allegory, or an edgy children's movie; it's a loyal tribute to the way kids think and feel. To see what else I thought of the film, just read more.

Max reaches the world of the wild things after throwing a particularly heinous fit, prompting his mother to yell, "You're out of control!" After running away, Max finds himself on a boat that finally brings him to a strange land. This is where the wild things are. The creatures Jonze has created are aesthetic wonders: creepy, hostile, and huggable at once. These aren't Jim Henson's Muppets, but real characters, led by Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini). The rest of the group is comprised of Lauren Ambrose as aloof KW, Catherine O'Hara as prickly Judith, Paul Dano as timid Alexander, Chris Cooper as Douglas, and Forest Whitaker as Ira.

Each creature has a fully realized personality, with flaws and varying temperaments; their faces are so emotive and their dialogue so human that their scenes with Max are as real as those with his mother. This group is not easily classified as friend or foe — they're dysfunctional in their relationships and don't always treat each other well. One of the most successful elements of the movie is the dialogue of the wild things, which is rooted in Max's head.

In many ways, screenwriter Dave Eggers's job was tougher than Spike Jonze's, because it's imperative to remember the way children think. Max's interactions with Carol and his new clan are made up of the kind of things a kid would hear from his parents and peers and then internalize. In fact, in the wild world, Max declares himself king to bring order, and he summons up speeches from the authority figures that he's pulling away from in his real life. Naturally, he's too young to recognize how his subverted position is significant.

Max's relationship with Carol is most telling. As the de facto leader of the group who can't handle sadness, loneliness, or jealousy, he acts out as a mirror of Max while still being his own character. The richness of Carol and the creature cast stays with you; when Max has to say goodbye to his friends, your heart breaks.

Jonze impressed me with his non-conformity; in another movie, Max would have demonstrated the grand lessons he learned from his time on the island, but in this one, he doesn't have to learn anything. He just gets to feel and experience and appreciate his emotionally fragmented new friends. It's devastating as a viewer, especially if you can put yourself back in that childlike place when your feelings were so raw and simple.


Photos courtesy of Warner Bros.

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