Where The Wild Things Are (2009) – What it’s like to be a Kid…

Like many of you I’m sure, Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are is part of my childhood wallpaper – peel back the layers stuck to the inside of my skull, beneath the old horror movie posters and Italia ’90 stickers, and there, somewhere, will be those indelible, strangely peaceful monsters of Sendak’s original book.

I know I never owned a copy, but I recall it being one of the books being fought over in the reading corner at School when I was little – it was the book equivalent of the James Bond Aston Martin toy car with the ejector seat and the missiles. Then when I went to work at a Primary school years later, it was always Where The Wild Things Are the kids were scrapping over….

I’d heard about a film adaptation, which I quickly forgot about, thinking the usual pessimistic thoughts about how much of a mess they were likely to make of another childhood classic. It’s been over a month since I watched Spike Jonze’s effort, and it’s such a curious, affecting piece it won’t quite go away – I’ve been straining to think of another “kid’s” film it resembles, but it’s pretty hard. In some ways, I think the film it resembles the most is the animated adaptation of Raymond Briggs’ beloved The Snowman.

Sendak’s original tale tells of a young boy called Max, who gets into so much mischief that he is sent to bed without any dinner. In his imagination, he sets off on an adventure across the sea to a strange forested land, where he encounters the wild things, a tribe of huge fierce monsters. Max proves himself to be the wildest thing of all and becomes their king, and after the “wild rumpus”, he soon becomes lonely and heads back home to the comforts of his family life.

One of the most impressive things about Jonze’s adaptation is that he hasn’t tried to pad out such a slim story into a massive feature length adventure – rather, he uses the original tale to inform a realistic portrayal of a lonely young boy who’s imagination sometimes gets the better of him.

The Wild Thing Max, played by newcomer Max Records, is initially caught in a scene of such alarming anger and vitality it’s a bit of a shock – dressed in the book’s famous wolf costume and followed by Jonze’s handheld camera, he chases and wrestles the family dog which such ferocious abandon there’s no doubt who the wild thing is here.

These early scenes of Max’s childhood are among the most effective of the film. Max is not an abused or neglected kid – it’s just he’s a bit lonely. His older sister is off out with her friends all the time, and his single mother (played warmly by Catherine Keener) loves him dearly, but has now reached the point when she now wants some new male attention in her life.

Some purists may be upset that the book’s transmogrification of Max’s bedroom into a jungle has been missed out, because it would certainly be within the realms of today’s special effects, but it doesn’t make too much of a difference.

Once Max’s journey has begun, he’s off across the sea and winds up in a wintry woodland, not unlike one he might find at the bottom of his garden – into his imagination, and Max is limited by what he already knows. Apart from the woods, the strange land is bordered by cliffs and beaches that recall the forlorn shoreline of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland.

Max encounters the Wild Things, huge lumbering creatures in the midst of smashing up their nests, led by the impetuous Carol, who is in a fury because his girlfriend-thing KW has left. Max tries to join in, and soon finds himself surrounded by a pack of looming, hungry-looking creatures threatening to eat him. Max is able to convince them he is actually a king, and after the “wild rumpus”, tries to bring order and harmony to the desolate group of monsters.

The creatures themselves are wonderful – I was initially put off by their “American” voices, but the vocal actors really bring the performances to the fore and do a brilliant job of voicing each creature’s foibles and insecurities. The creatures themselves are a seamless blend of CGI and animatronic suits designed by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. So often these days I find myself dragged out of a story by how fake the special effects look – Where The Wild Things Are is one of a few examples I can thing of where the effects look exactly right.

There is not much plot to speak of – the drama of the story is whether Max can really unite this band of fierce, lonely creatures into a loving group, and whether he can do it without getting eaten in the meantime. Because the creatures are figments of his imagination, the rhythms of their relationships has the same uneasy shifting of tantrums, boisterousness and shifting alliances of the playground…except this time, Max’s playmates are eight foot tall monsters who eat each other to settle disagreements.

There is an early scene which shows what can happen to Kings of the Wild Things who displease their subjects – it’s a brief, chilling moment, and again Jonze uses it wisely. While this is Max’s imagination, Jonze knows imaginations are deep and dark places, and sometimes people who immerse themselves fully into a fantasy world don’t always come back.

Where The Wild Things Are is a peculiar, moving and haunting film; I don’t think it is suitable for really young children, who may find it too slow or just plain frightening. Older kids, particularly those old enough to be allowed out to play on their own, should relate to it’s themes well.

If not, then the film is left to us grown ups – those of us with the knowledge that no matter how well we were brought up, there were moments when being a kid was a bewildering and lonely place. A beautiful film.


About leerobertadams

Lee is an English writer, blogger and film critic living in Brno, Czech Republic. When not watching and writing about movies, he loves football, reading, eating out, and enjoying his adopted home city with his girlfriend and baby daughter.

Posted on 28/11/2011, in Adventure, Family, Fantasy, Film, Movies, Reviews, W and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Loved it too, spot on about the effects i make exactly the same point, you can’t beat having that physical presence. It had a good balance between being lively and entertaining and dark and threatening.

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