Reviews: Where The Wild Things Are

Where The Wild Things Are is not a children’s movie, in the typical sense. It opened in the ‘States to middling critical reception (which has since improved) and significantly negative audience response; people (parents) were expecting a wondrous tale of childish imagination, and what they got was a disarmingly honest portrayal of what it’s like to be a confused kid in the real world.  The film is pretty damn wondrous, but it does not pander to children. And that’s a good thing.

Filmed in Victoria, Australia, Spike Jonze’s psychologically revealing adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s 10-sentence picture book tells the tale of young Max (Max Records). Max is on the cusp of adolescence – still wildly imaginative, volatile and immature. His single mother is stressed and distracted by work and his older sister is aloof and apathetic. Max clearly feels alienated and unhappy. One night, Max’s mother’s distraction while entertaining a male friend leads to a temper tantrum, which itself leads Max to run out of their home and down the street into a local park. This sequence, as he brushes through bushes and around trees, takes us from reality into the land of Max’s imagination – the land of the Wild Things.

What follows is a gloriously filmed, naturally acted representation of a child dealing with issues that fall just that little way beyond his ability to understand. The Wild Things themselves look amazing; half Jim Henson-made full-size puppet-suits and half perfectly integrated CGI, they look perfect. The use of actual bodysuits gives them a feeling of reality, of tangibility. This could have ruined the film if done poorly; luckily, it was done perfectly.  The world is both beautifully idealised and grounded in reality; everything is natural and handmade, from the woven huts to the miniature model Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini) tends to. The other Wild Things  –  voiced by equally well-known and talented actors, including Catherine O’Hara as Judith, Forest Whitaker as Ira, Paul Dano as Alexander and Chris Cooper as Douglas – vary in personality, from aggressive and untrusting to mild and obsequious to mysterious and menacing, and these personalities seem to represent those various aspects of Max’s personality. Carol most obviously mirrors Max, initially welcoming him as a friend and King and eventually demonstrating what it is Max must overcome within himself. The fact that the Wild Things represent Max’s psyche is never really spelled out, and I really appreciated that. This film is not dumb, and it doesn’t treat its audience as if they’re dumb either.

This film is warm in look but not in feel; we’re dealing with the darker, negative side to childhood here and the film doesn’t shy way from that at all. It’s admirable in how faithful it is to its central concern; what it’s like to be a confused child of a single mother in a world which is rapidly losing its shine.  The film is melancholic and slightly upsetting, but also intellectually stimulating and rewarding.

In terms of technicality and artistry, this film is masterfully made. Karen O’s soundtrack is evocative and uplifting, a perfect sonic extension of the images on-screen. Oh, and those images? Beautiful. Stunning. Haunting. Incredible.

Max Records gives and honest and entertaining performance as Max, and manages to essentially carry the entire film with ease and charisma (well, as much charisma as a bratty, awkward kid can possess). I recognise a lot of kids in Max’s performance, and while it might be hard for those kids to accept the sometimes confronting portrayal of children it’s still important for them to see this film. This film is an excellent depiction of childhood, and I’d be surprised if the adults in the audience found nothing to connect to. Where The Wild Things Are is a gorgeously filmed story about a boy whose imagination leads him on a journey from wildness to acceptance. It’s great. Go see it.

– Ben Vernel


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