Where the Wild Things Are

Movie Information

The Story: A young boy runs away from home after a fight with his mother and travels to a magical island inhabited by fantastic creatures that mirror himself and his real life. The Lowdown: An ambitious, not entirely successful attempt to flesh out the children's book by Maurice Sendak. Rarely less than fascinating, but somehow not quite what it seems to want to be.
Genre: Children's Fantasy
Director: Spike Jonze
Starring: Max Records, Catherine Keener, James Gandofini, Lauren Ambrose, Paul Dano, Chris Cooper
Rated: PG

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.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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15 thoughts on “Where the Wild Things Are

  1. Tonberry

    At the end of watching “Where the Wild Things Are” a good half of the audience broke out and started to howl. I was not one of these, and I couldn’t really understand as much as why they did.

    My first viewing of my most anticipated movie this year didn’t have me loving it, it had me perplexed. Devastated. Shocked. Heartbroken. I obviously had more of an emotional response to it than you did, but I feel that has a lot due to how much the book means to me. This movie had a brutal underlying current of tension and fear, it’s almost uncomfortable.

    Usually when a movie does this to me, it turns out to be a favorite. That’s how Wes Anderson’s movies have affected me, Paul T Anderson’s, and the Coen Brothers. So as of now, I’m not entirely sure how to properly feel about “Where the Wild Things Are,” but I know a second viewing is due.

  2. Ken Hanke

    I obviously had more of an emotional response to it than you did, but I feel that has a lot due to how much the book means to me.

    I think that’s a definite consideration. I’ve remarked elsewhere that the book has no significance for me. I’d have been nine when it came out and about 12 when it became really popular, so it completely escaped my notice as a child.

    Usually when a movie does this to me, it turns out to be a favorite.

    Justin — who generally has to listen to me talk about these things more than anyone else — will I’m sure attest to the fact that when I come out of a film saying “I’m not sure whether I liked it,” it usually becomes something I like a lot.

    I know a second viewing is due.

    And this is where I’m more perplexed with my feelings than usual, because I’m not sure I want to see it again.

    As an aside, I was interested to see that the film most definitely has that “Asheville movie” vibe to it. The national average per theater for its opening weekend was $8,800. One theater here did about twice that. Another almost tripled the figure.

  3. bart zink

    Hey Hank,

    Can’t say that I ever agree with your reviews… I loved the “Wild Things” as a child and feel like the screen adaptation was amazing! I saw the matinee on Saturday and cried a few times. I’m not a sap but it did touch me in a way that put a “frog in my throat”. I recommend this movie to all of my friends. I feel that the characters were portrayed in an appropriate way… After all, they are the “wild things”. In the end, we all loved our protagonist Max… His enthusiasm for the moment and portrayal of the brave Max was spot on! The movie left me feeling “uplifted” and not perplexed at all… Why do you guys feel perplexed by the adaptation? Keep on writing! That’s why we have a forum for these discussions because everyone can have their own opinions…
    Bart Zink

  4. Ken Hanke

    Can’t say that I ever agree with your reviews

    That’s really a rather amazing statement, if you stop and think about the likelihood that out of over 2,000 reviews you’ve never agreed with one.

    That’s why we have a forum for these discussions because everyone can have their own opinions…

    Anyone can have his or her own opinions regardless of whether there’s a forum or not.

  5. TigerShark

    I liked bits of it…but overall I was bored with it more often than not.

    And yeah, when he’s standing on the counter, and more, when he actually bites his mom, I’d have had him head down in the toilet so fast, giving him a swirly…

  6. Ken Hanke

    I don’t think I was ever actually bored by it, though there were times when I was less than fully engaged. That may be a milder version of the same thing.

  7. Rob Close

    it felt slow, but i didn’t want it any shorter. i rather enjoyed a lot of it…i dunno, i guess i just agree with ken here. it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what else i would have wanted out of this film, but i do felt like it lacked…something.

    i do think that it was absolutely fantastic for certain kids.

  8. Ken Hanke

    I tend to think it could have been cut down, because some of it does feel like padding to me, but that runs the risk of making it feel slighter than it already does and perhaps even rushed.

  9. Alley

    The first half felt slow. I was interested but not fully engaged. However, once things stated getting rough I was hooked. Carol’s freak out had me frozen in my seat and I didn’t move from that position the rest of the movie.

  10. Vince Lugo

    I saw this yesterday and loved it. It seems to me to be the kind of film Jim Henson might have made if he were still alive. That it took almost 20 years for anyone else to get on the same wavelength as him really says something about how much of a genius Henson was. However, I get the sense that this film will more than likely become a cult classic rather than a revered family favorite. There’s nothing wrong with that because it falls into the same category as The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, both excellent, if underappreciated, films.

  11. Ken Hanke

    I get the sense that this film will more than likely become a cult classic rather than a revered family favorite.

    Considering how far above the national averages the Asheville gross was on opening weekend that may be a good bet, since Asheville seems more prone to take to cultish movies than most places. It’ll be intereting to see how well it holds up in its second weekend.

  12. Sean Kelley

    I have to say, I was more disappointed than anything else by the film. I had been looking forward to seeing it probably more than any film since “The Dark Knight” came out. Between the talent involved and the chill-inducing trailer (I don’t know how many times I watched that), I had extremely high expectations. I was let down on almost every count.
    I have no problem with a film being slow; often times movies with more deliberate paces build up and have more of an impact because of it. But there was no building up here – there’s never really anything at stake to create tension. There was no forward momentum to speak of. Jonzes’ strategy seemed to consist of filming a lot of long, ponderous dialogue scenes, then every once in a while tossing in one with the characters sprinting through the woods or throwing dirtclods at each other. These individual scenes were energetic, but they went nowhere.
    And regarding the opening, real-world scenes, I actually felt the opposite of what you did. These scenes felt vivid and authentic in a way the fantasy ones never did (and not because there were giant furry creatures who could talk).
    Something I do agree with you on, though, is my reaction upon leaving the theater. I was definitely a little perplexed, but more than anything else, I was underwhelmed.

  13. Ken Hanke

    The movie took a worse than 50% drop this weekend. It took an even sharper drop locally, but it still came in above the national per theater average, but hardly as spectacularly as it did the first week.

  14. John

    What a gem. It surprises me that some viewers were not engaged by the film — to me it was a fantastic realization of the spirit and the aesthetic of a canonical, fundamentally American work of children’s litterature, which also expanded upon its themes in powerful ways. Max is a wounded boy. His torment would be easier to justify if it were external — but it is not — he is not beaten, abused, or mistreated. His family loves him, but they do not have time to attend to or even acknowledge his psychological conflicts, being distracted by the mundane yet all too real problems they are facing (work obligations, attempts at romantic relationships, teenage cliques and their brutal rules). Max’s loneliness twists into rage resulting in awful behavior. This culminates in the projection of his savage emotional life as a thorny fantasy replete with powerful symbols and an internal metric of myths, dreams and nightmares — part Sesame Street and part Waiting for Godot. By becoming a wild thing through the power of imagination and creativity, he learns that anger can not compel love, and achieves at least temporary, possibly fragile reconciliation with his humanity. What a good, rare film.

  15. Rochelle Norlund

    I really like this movie, because I like the designs on where the movie takes place and the designs of the characters, and that Jim Henson’s Creature Shop did a wonderful job on bringing the Wild Things to life.
    Spike Jonze, Maurice Sendak, Max Records, Catherine Keener, James Gandolfini, Lauren Ambrose and many more did wonderful jobs on this movie together. I also like the scenes that has to do with Carol and Max, because they both act like father and son figures to each other, it’s just like what James Gandolfini and Max Records did together in the studio for the movie.
    I also wish there’s going to be a sequel for this movie, so everyone will want to know on what will happen to Max, if he is going to go back to the island of the Wild Things and everyone also wants to know on what will happen to Carol, if he is going to apologize to Max for trying to eat him and if he wants to see Max again. Maybe, just maybe, Carol and KW will still be together as a wonderful couple, maybe have their first kiss with everyone watching (Mmmmm) and maybe Carol and KW will have a baby together.

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