Where The Wild Things Are

Director    Spike Jonze
Starring    Max Records, Catherine Keener, Mark Ruffalo, James Gandolfini, Catherine O'Hara, Paul Dano, Chris Cooper
Release    16 OCT (US) 11 DEC (UK)    Certificate PG
5 stars


10th December 2009

With Where the Wild Things Are, Spike Jonze not only solidifies his reputation as a great director (as if there were any doubt), but he also demonstrates an uncanny understanding of precisely what it's like to be a kid. With this gorgeous and touching adaptation of the beloved children's book by author Maurice Sendak, Jonze and screenwriter David Eggers have managed to capture the essence of childhood; all the confusion, fear, pain, anger, loneliness, and above all the joy of being a kid are evident throughout.

It doesn't hurt that newcomer Max Records proved to be up to the challenge of playing the film's young hero, as it is his subdued and pitch-perfect performance that grounds the entire film, and provides an emotional connection for the audience to latch onto. Thankfully, Records is backed up by a top-notch cast who expertly bring the wild things to life, and while you never once see their faces appear on screen, they deliver some of the most powerful and moving performances of the year.

The film concerns Max (Records), a highly-strung and imaginative nine-year old who is introduced wearing a wolf costume and chasing the family dog around the house with a fork. Max is a lonely child, spending his days badgering his older sister to come and check out his sweet snow fort, and engaging in raucous snowball fights with her friends, an activity which ends in tears for the youngster.

Max has a strong emotional attachment to his mother (Catherine Keener, doing some great work with a minimal amount of screen time), and when he catches her making time with a handsome younger man (Mark Ruffalo, in what essentially amounts to a glorified cameo), Max becomes upset and takes off into the woods. While there, he retreats into his own mind for comfort, and imagines himself sailing a small boat to a distant island.

It is here that he meets the wild things of the title, stumbling across them just as their leader, Carol (James Gandolfini, who delivers what may be the most affecting performance of 2009), is throwing a temper tantrum. Max joins in, and promptly bluffs his way into becoming their king. They embark upon a series of adventures together, including building the world's biggest and coolest fort. Unfortunately, the fun and games cannot last forever, and Max is soon forced to learn some hard truths about himself.

[gallery]Rather than attempt to make a straight adaptation of the book, which is extremely slight and essentially devoid of plot, Jonze and Eggers opted to use the framework of the story to make a film about childhood, and it proves to be a brilliant move. There are a number of heavy themes explored throughout the movie, and it contains a number of quiet, introspective moments, often threatening to take a detour from kid film territory and into the realm of arthouse cinema. Obviously, the subtext will be lost on much younger viewers (and if we're being honest, it will probably fly over the heads of a lot of the adult audience too), but the film contains enough inventive action sequences to keep most kids enthralled.

It is important to note just how attuned Jonze and Eggers are to the idiosyncrasies of children and childhood, and how they go about exploring this theme. The manner might seem familiar, but they manage to put their own unique spin on the material. Each of the wild things represents a different facet of Max's personality, and by interacting with them, Max learns more about himself, and thus how he impacts the lives of others.

In Carol, Max sees a kindred spirit, and when Carol's temper tantrums start to tear apart his new makeshift family, Max is forced to accept some responsibility and take charge of the situation. The entire film rests on Max Record's small shoulders, and thankfully he proves more than capable of conveying the wide range of emotions required of him.

The rest of the cast is exceptional, and there are moments when the wild things, a combination of practical effects and CG, deliver performances more powerful and nuanced as those of a lot of real actors. Gandolfini is the standout here, and his performance is both heartbreaking and a joy to behold. The rest of the wild things get brief moments in the spotlight, and the performances are uniformly excellent, but it is Carol who serves as the group's heart, and Gandolfini does an admirable job of making the audience care for this silly looking creature's emotional plight.

Best of all, every other aspect of the film is masterful, from the stunning cinematography to the lively and infectious score by Carter Burwell and Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The film manages to work on nearly every level, and it's actually sort of amazing that the film was put out there pretty much as Jonze and Eggers intended. While it may be a little too slow and thoughtful for young viewers, Where the Wild Things Are is nonetheless a wonderful film that will appeal to the inner child of anyone in possession of a soul.

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