I cannot honestly say that I have ever been as conflicted about a movie as I am with Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are. It’s been over two days since I watched it, and I know now only slightly more about my feelings on it than I did when I walked out of the theater. What I knew then was that it was odd and interesting. What I didn’t know was whether I actually liked it. All that can be added to that now is that I can’t quite stop thinking about the film. That clearly says something about the movie, but I’m not sure what.
The film is an expansion of—perhaps a meditation on—Maurice Sendak’s 1963 children’s book. Considering that the book is only about 40 pages long and has nine sentences of text, expansion was inescapable. In doing so, Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers have stuck remarkably close to the original, while offering their own take on the material, as all the best book-to-film adaptations do.
The problem is that some of the setup feels overstated and a little tedious. Worse—at least from my perspective—it seems to want the viewer to find Max’s (Max Records, The Brothers Bloom) behavior understandable, amusing or cute. While I find some of it understandable—even touching (as in the case of his igloo being destroyed)—other aspects of it are merely appalling. By the time Max defies his mother (Catherine Keener) by jumping on the kitchen counter and screaming, “Feed me, woman!”, my feelings were that this kid was a prime candidate for a nice military school. What I’m not clear on is whether that wasn’t the film’s intent. Regardless, it took some time before I regained even marginal sympathy for the character.
His subsequent flight from home, his sea journey to the magical island where the wild things are, and his encounters with the creatures there works far better for me than the—admittedly necessary—setup. I believed in the solidity of the creatures and I liked the way in which the film made them all reflect Max or some aspect of his life. It’s an approach that makes sense because all this is a fantasy—an internal dialogue between Max and himself. The fact that these lumbering, slightly terrifying creatures accept this little boy in a cheesy wolf suit at his word and make him their king is dead-on, as anyone who’s ever been lied to by a child knows full well. Children are always astonished when you see through an outrageous lie, so in Max’s imagination, all his guff about Vikings and special powers would be taken at face value.
The interactions with the characters are equally apt and to the point. Max sees himself as the out-of-control and destructive Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini) and in so doing comes to see his own failings and to fear his inner rage. The reality of the situation—that he’s actually more like the overlooked and much put-upon Alexander (voiced by Paul Dano)—doesn’t dawn on Max or the viewer until the aftermath of a dirt-clod fight that parallels the snowball fight and destruction of Max’s igloo from the setup. The arguing between Carol and his quasi-girlfriend KW (voiced by Lauren Ambrose, Cold Souls) not only suggests the quarreling of a married couple headed for divorce, but Max’s own fears that his mother may find herself no longer able to deal with his anger and outbursts. There’s more, but that’s the basic approach.
It’s all very clever and very creative. It’s intellectually stimulating. But how much of it actually had any emotional impact? That, I think, is the problem for me, because I only responded to it emotionally on two occasions. Otherwise, I felt strangely distanced from the proceedings—something that I think explains my lack of enthusiasm for Spike Jonze in general. His films seem to me to think too much and feel too little, and that’s what I’m left with here. Still, I think Where the Wild Things Are is an interesting, important piece of filmmaking that should be seen if only for what it attempts. Whether it achieves its aims is going to be a very personal call. Rated PG for mild thematic elements, some adventure action and brief language.