Where The Wild Things Are is a fantastic art film about what it feels like to be a child, and that probably means it’s going to perform sluggishly at the box office.
Based on Maurice Sendak’s brief children’s book and directed by Spike Jonze, the film could have developed a linear plot about Max in the world of the Wild Things, but instead it floats through its running time on childhood emotion, using the audience’s feelings as its internal pacing. And that’s risky business…
I’m guessing that critics are going to be divided on this one, but those that recommend this movie to you are going to tell you it’s a must-see, a cult classic in the making – and it is. Those that don’t like the movie are going to say that it’s slow, aimless and possibly boring – and it is. If Where The Wild Things Are didn’t have such a following amongst the 20-something age group and the trailer featuring Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up” didn’t garner so much attention online, I doubt this movie would have gotten a release as wide as it has.
This isn’t a children’s movie as much as it’s a movie about being a child. I don’t have children, but I can imagine that I’d be the type of possibly-misguided father who would bring his 9 or 10-year-old to check out Wild Things. It might bore them, but I think they would find some emotional truth in it. Max, played by Max Records (seen this year as a young Bloom Brother), is a little terror who has defaced the opening credits and who dominates the first half-hour of the film with his wild emotions from the glee of a snowball fight to the tantrum caused by his mother’s new boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo in a cameo-level appearance).
Instead of transforming his room into the land of the Wild Things like in the book, Max runs out of his house, down the street and to the waterfront where he gets in an abandoned boat and sails away. The film’s version is much more dangerous (Want and adventure kids? Get in that abandoned boat!) and the tone of very real danger remains throughout Max’s time with the Wild Things. When we first meet our pack of furry emotional stand-ins, Carrol (James Gandolfini) is throwing a tantrum by firelight and Judith (Catherine O’Hara) threatens to eat their new king. Just in case we had forgotten that the Wild Things represent some real danger, Max finds the human bones of the previous king(s) pretty early on.
Gandolfini turns in an amazing vocal performance as Carrol. It’s one of the few times I’ve been able to fully separate the man from Tony Soprano, and it might be the first time in a film that an actor’s voice-over performance made such awesome use of breathing. Gandolfini’s Carrol huffs, pants, sighs, and damn if it isn’t effective.
Each Wild Thing represents and emotion that Max has inside of him and Carrol contains the anger and frustration that lives in every child. Carrol is the part of you that was pretty sure life was going to be easier than this, he’s the part that lashes out and sometimes gets people accidentally hurt, he’s the part of you capable of the deepest sadness and the most fiery rage simultaneously. He’s all these things and it plays really well.
I’m unsure if you need to have had a brother or be a man now to understand this facet of childhood. It’s interesting that Carrol represents a childhood emotion I most associate with being young and male, yet the Wild Thing is still our featured creature. Reactions from female viewers have been mixed, but as a guy, I understood the film as it was unspooling.
Here’s an example: My brother and I are building a fort in our basement. We’ve emptied out our two toy chests and pushed them together with a large cardboard box to make a spaceship. One of our toy chests is the “observation room,” a tiny plastic container that could only fit one of us. I was relegated to the “observation room” which I quickly made the cockpit (since I’m older and therefore the captain). As my brother was outside the fort on a “space walk” repairing our ship, for some reason that was a mystery then and remains one to me now, I removed the cockpit windshield (a small, transparent plastic tub) and threw it at my brother’s head as hard as I could.
I don’t know why. Maybe I was pissed that I was stuck in the observation room, maybe my brother had taken the toy out of the cereal box that morning and I had relegated vengeance to my unconscious mind.
Seconds later, my brother is wailing and bleeding profusely from the face. It turns out that a corner of that seemingly-harmless plastic tub had cut him right below his eye. My parents, being the caring folks that they are, took my brother and I to the hospital. He was wailing and bleeding and the doctor said he needed stitches.
I stood in the waiting room, staring at the fish tank, almost shitting my pants. Of course, my parents had gotten mad and asked the logical questions: “What did you do? Why did you do that to your brother?” And here’s the thing: I didn’t know, but I felt horrible. So horrible, in fact, that when my brother got his stiches, my parents came back into the waiting room, took one look at me and decided that I had punished myself far more than they could ever punish me.
That’s what Where The Wild Things Are is all about: that moment; from the seemingly random outbursts of energy and violence to the totally unexpected consequences that follow your actions. Sometimes these things don’t make sense the first time you experience them. What you write off as “shit happens” when you get older is painful, confusing and thrilling when you’re nine.
If you are open to seeing a movie with fantastic visuals and think you can follow an emotional plot rather than a fact or action based one, Where The Wild Things Are is a beautiful film I’ll be watching for years to come. If you’re looking for an adaptation of your favorite children’s book for children of your own, see if Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs is still playing in your area.