Directed by Spike Jonze; screenplay by Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers, from the book by Maurice Sendak
Changes and shifts are inevitable in adaptation. In turning a iconic storybook consisting of pages of fantastical images and only ten simple sentences, it’s inescapable. Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are is surely the best anyone could hope for in a feature-length tribute to the Maurice Sendak picture book, expanded and reimagined in the spirit of the feelings that drives that story.
Sendak’s original Where the Wild Things Are is not just a classic, it’s a masterful evocation of the energy and creativity and frustration and emotional hyperactivity that kids express in acting up and acting out. Jonze and his screenwriting partner, Dave Eggers, preserve the imagination and the primal emotions of Sendak while grounding his preadolescent hero is a palpably real world where his older sister is more interested in teenage buddies and his single mom (Catherine Keener), however attentive and responsive to his imaginative world, is too often busy and is even dating, creating a whole new dimension of anxieties for Max.
Jonze captures touching moments of tenderness between mother and son with the simplest of images—Max curled up under her desk, distractedly pulling at the toe of her nylon while telling here an impromptu story—which makes his emotional meltdown all the more wrenching and real. “I’ll eat you up,” he screams in a line right out of the book. Max is played by Max Records with an openness and responsiveness that makes him live every moment in the moment, and a vulnerability that makes his outbursts more poignant. When he’s momentarily buried in a collapsed snow tunnel, the scare comes across his face with a harrowing immediacy: frightened and startled and upset, compounded by the way he’s callously (or rather, unthinkingly) abandoned by the teens who inadvertently crushed his little playhouse. Even more affecting is shocked realization as he registers what he’s done a moment after he bites his mom in a furious tantrum. You can see his regret, his terror, his wish he could take it all back in his eyes, and his flight from home springs right out of his shame and anger and confused feeling coursing through that little body in a wolf costume.
Thus he flees to the island of the wild things, a landscape of craggy coasts and primal forests and sand dunes that is fantastical and primitive, and a population of amazing beasts, a tribe of hulking yet childlike monsters equal parts mythological creature and demented stuffed animal. The imagination behind this film is tremendous but Jonze shoots the film with a naturalism, as if grounding the fantastical in the physical world, and the wild things (in magnificent suits created by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop with animated assists to the face and mouth) are just as solid and substantial as the rocks and trees and nest-like forts they crush with knock-about abandon. Voiced by the likes of James Gandolfini, Catherine O’Hara, Forest Whitaker and Chris Cooper, they are children in adult voices, eager to play and happy to make Max their king (thier first thought was to eat him, and some bones buried by their huts suggests they may have done so in the past, just another dark thread in the weave that echoes of the Grimm Brothers).
But Max has left nothing behind: these beasts may roughhouse with the devil-may-care invulnerability of demi-gods, smashing into trees and each other like it was a primeval mosh pit, yet they are vulnerable to loneliness and jealousy and neglect and the same anxieties of being left out and not listened to that Max feels in the human world. Max may be king of the wild things, but he can’t control the emotions in the wild rumpus of this world of make-believe any more than he could back home.
That psychology may be obvious, but it also has an honest simplicity and authenticity. Jonze explores this emotional world with an empathy that respects the elevated feelings of these fabulous child monsters. But it can also be a little dark and is likely a little too intense, both visually and emotionally, for small children. While there is no real peril, the everyday anxieties and little crises are directed to reflect the heightened sensitivity of our hero, Max, and may be too much for some kids. I’m sure that other kids will respond to those feelings and the respect accorded to them
Where The Wild Things Are is a film for the child within and I love it. There is no effort to whip up the furious action and noisy comic complications that thoroughly destroyed the live-action versions of the Dr. Seuss adaptations How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Cat in the Hat. Jonze is respectful to the source (Sendak reportedly picked Jonze to direct the film and has given it his stamp of approval) and adds his own dimensions in the spirit of the original and a style all his own. It’s as honest a tale of being a child as you’ll find on screen, with all of the fantasy and reality and joy and anxiety of childhood grounded in the imagery and the landscapes of a tyke’s mind.
After the screening I got into an animated discussion with a friend and fellow critic, Tom Tangney of KIRO FM, about whether the film is appropriate for kids. Tom described the film as a “Bergman drama to kids” (a phrase to wish I had come up with) and felt that the intensity of the emotions would be too much for them. I still think that most kids will appreciate seeing some of the most difficult emotions and hardest to express feelings from their lives treated with such respect and empathy. But I honestly don’t know. I don’t have kids and so I don’t know firsthand what they would and would not be able to handle. As an adult, I love Jonze’s ability to key into the imagination and wonder and intensity of childhood and to express so simply and evocatively those overwhelming feelings that burn so hot and immediate, from the runaway joy of a wild rumpus with pals to the hurt feelings of being left out to the helplessness of being a kid in a world beyond your control. I think kids will also—the book itself was once criticized for its portrait of bad behavior, The Wizard of Oz was thought to scary for kids, and there were folks who worried that the latter Harry Potter books were too dark for children to handle. Kids managed just fine with all of them. I think they will here too.