In his adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s similarly titled children’s picture book, Spike Jonze has delivered an insightful film that restrains indie-film kookiness for an honest look at relationships from a child’s perspective. From a source material of just a few lines of story, he has fashioned a convincing tale of a boy who desires loving affection, but is unable to control the wild emotions that rage within him.
Max (Max Records) is approaching adolesence, and the absence of a father figure has made him at once emotionally vunerable and tempestuous. Living with his sister, and mother (a wonderfully sympathetic Catherine Keenan), he is a solitary character who seems unable to interact with other people (or dogs for that matter) without introducing an element of violence. He lives in his own imagination, building dens from blankets in his bedroom and also in the winter streets from banks of snow. While having an argument with his mother, he bites her. Shocked at what he has done, and by her rejection of his savage intimacy, he runs away into the winter night. Scrambling through nearby woodland, he finds an expanse of sea and the small boat in which he sails to the land Where the Wild Things Are.
Towering monsters of fur and teeth, the Wild Things perfectly resemble the illustrations from Sendak’s book. With only a restrained amount of CGI work to augment facial expressions, the effects department must be credited with creating costumes that embody a forbidding physical presence and also a softness, showing the vulnerable emotional creatures that they are beneath their menacing surface. In effect, the Wild Things are like children that have not learned to restrain their destructive impulses.
It’s a brilliant evocation of the contradictory nature of playground relationships. Max is violent in his initiation of fights that destroy whole areas of the forest, and another that results in the bullying of the timid Alexander (Paul Dano, previously seen as the mute teen in Little Miss Sunshine), but also constructive in his desire to build a huge fortress that will protect them all from the pain of loneliness. The voice cast brilliantly grumps, mopes and rages, using among others, the voice talents of Catherine O’Hara as the resentful Judith, Forest Whitaker as quiet Ira, Chris Cooper as the pragmatic Douglas and James Gandolfini as Carol, the character with whom Max ultimately empathises. Like Max, Carol has a deep desire to create a new world and change things for the better, but is thwarted by his inability to overcome his more destructive nature, shown by his delicate construction in twigs of a perfect miniature world which he later destroys in a fit of rage. I was constantly reminded of Gandolfini’s more famous alter-ego from The Sopranos, and how similar that character is in his childlike and violent exclamations. The desperate frustration of Carol is perfectly captured in his voice.
The art design is wholly sympathetic to the book, extending the colour palette into landscapes of bright blue seas and skies, a forest of browns and greens, and a perfect desert of golden sand dunes. The CGI rendering of the fortress by the coast is breathtaking in it’s size and simple shapes. Jonze’s introspective eye also allows us to linger on the more evocative moments of childhood, through shots of shallow focus revealing the many ornaments and toys of Max’s bedroom, the tasting of rough crystals of new snow, and Lance Acord’s (Marie Antoinette, Lost in Translation) dreamlike cinematography of low, yellow sunlight blinking through the trees as a sleeping Max is carried by Carol through the forest.
This is a movie made to create a shared recognition of childhood experience, without resorting to beating the audience over the head with platitudes about how it’s good to be nice after all. Some younger children may find the movie a little too talkative, and possibly scary during the rough rumpus scenes, but children aged around ten years old and upwards shouldn’t have any trouble recognising themselves and their friends on screen.