A film review by Craig J. Koban October 23, 2009,

Rank:  #8


2009, PG, 101 mins.


Max: Max Records / Claire: Pepita Emmerichs / Mom: Catherine Keener / Teacher: Steve Mouzakis / Boyfriend: Mark Ruffalo

With the voices of:

Carol: James Gandolfini / Alexander: Paul Dano / Judith: Catherine O'Hara / Ira: Forest Whitaker / The Bull: Michael Berry Jr. / Douglas: Chris Cooper / KW: Lauren Ambrose

Directed by Spike Jonze / Written by Jonze and Dave Eggers, inspired by the book and illustrations by Maurice Sendak

"Youth, with swift feet, walks onward in the way; the land of joy lies all before his eyes."

Edward G. Bulwer-Lytton, British politician, poet, and critic


Very few family films – let alone films in general – are as emotionally raw and moving as Spike Jonze’s WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE.  A self-professed labor of love for the auteur (he began filming it as far back as 2005 and has struggled to make it see the light of day ever since), Jonze’s deeply affective, daringly faithful, and psychological discriminating adaptation of the ten sentenced and 350 worded children’s fantasy book by celebrated author Maurice Sendak is a liberating filmgoing experience.


Not only does the film audaciously work as a fanciful and magical fantasy (all conceived with the director’s wily and eccentric aesthetic sensibilities), but it’s also a masterstroke for how acutely it understands the delicateness of the childhood mind, and on such a shockingly wide spectrum at that.  WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE is borderline Freudian for how astonishingly well in covers the joys, fears, anxieties, and inevitable self-awareness that nine-year-old boys struggle with and experience. 


The original source material was sparse, to say the least, but Sendak’s lively imagery and simple, but evocative text also did a bravura job of centering on one child’s internalized struggles to combat emotional obstacles, survive through them, and ultimately change.  Both immensely popular with readers and critics alike, WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE was arguably ahead of its time and much more hyper-literate and poignant than other rudimentary and simplistic picture books of its generation.  It had a sort of psychoanalytic edge to its veneer of a modest children’s parable.


Jonze – in collaboration with screenwriting partner Dave Eggers - does not engage in the path-most-taken, soft-pedaled approach to this material; his adaptation of the book (marking just his third, but arguably best, feature film) never once just routinely glosses over the finer details of how a kid’s wicked, wide-eyed exuberance leads to a ravenously strong appeal for love, understanding, and attention.  Instead, Jonze boldly looks towards a more unsettling portrait of its young protagonist: Like many rambunctious and inwardly drawn youth, the child at the center of the film is not perfect.  At times, he acts out in unusually harsh ways, which has netted the film some negative attention from conservative filmgoers and critics, claiming that it is perhaps “too dark”, “too cerebral,” and “too depressing” to be an entertaining family film. 


Although I will comment to the contrary in a bit, I will say now that smart and inquisitive storytellers are able to understand the mindset of their characters, warts and all.  A famous writer once commented that the finest way to encapsulate a life is to highlight all of the darkness that often shadows around it.  That’s precisely what Jonze is doing here appropriating Sendek’s work: he rightfully and truthfully shows children as difficult and flawed people trying to deal with and articulate difficult and flawed feelings.  As “dark” and “depressing” as those themes are, the unavoidable message of the film is joyous and uplifting: the immensity of a young person’s fertile imagination and dreams can be therapeutic to overcome and deal with the most beleaguered of emotional states.



The opening sections of the film contain some of the most sincere, honest, and naturalistic images of what it’s simply like to be a child: anyone that sees the film will easily identify with its young main character, Max (Max Records, an extraordinary find).  We witness moments that we all have collectively experienced growing up, especially in colder climates: the spontaneity of using one’s snow-covered surroundings as an access point to your limitless creativity and enthusiasm.  We see intercut moments of Max at his most leisurely and playful as he builds ice forts, engages in make-believe war games with a nearby fence, and later (in a scene that starts out joyously, but turns surprisingly somber and downbeat) we see Max engage in a snowball fight with his older sister and her friends.  These opening scenes feel aimless and a bit misshapen, but that’s precisely the point: Jonze’s loose, documentary-style, fly-on-the-wall approach here mimics the free spirited impulsiveness of Max, which essentially helps to ground the film in a reality that rings truthfully.


Even better is that, as mentioned, Max is both incorrigible and endearing at the same time.  There are moments where his vitality and spunk is contagious, but there are other times when he regresses into hostile irritability and anger that erupts in hurtful ways to those around him.  There are instances when his eruptive personality swings are directed at his mother (Catherine Keener, absolutely sincere and pitch-perfect as her loving, but emotionally conflicted, maternal figure).  That is not to say that both mother and child do not love each other, but there is a certain mutual stress that permeates their lives.  She is a single, working class mother dealing with her own employment and home front difficulties and Max is concurrently struggling with the complications of finding meaning to his own problems.  On one fateful evening – while Max’s mother has a much younger male suitor over for a drink (Mark Ruffalo) – Max begins to feel neglected.  In a fit of jealous rage, he begins to engage in a sabotage effort to spoil his mother’s one night of enjoyment, which ends with a rather violent altercation between the two.


Max, being, of course, a kid, has immense difficulty processing what he has done to his mother, so his only escape is…to escape.  In a zealot-like fit of grouchy resolve, Max runs away from home and eventually flees to a place far, far away from the rigid conformity of his earth-bound existence.  Much like Dorothy in THE WIZARD OF OZ and the children from BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA (still one of the most undesirably overlooked family films in years), Max finds a safe haven within his own  imagination.  He arrives (through a boat that travels across the ocean, in a move the mirrors an earlier scene with him playing with a miniature toy boat in bed) on a strange and forbidding island populated by seven outrageously large, fuzzy, furry, and featherly creatures, or “Wild Things”, which all seem to be suffering from their own family crisis.  Although hesitant at first, Max builds up the courage to intervene, but then sheepishly back peddles when one of the creatures threatens to eat him.  Gathering up will and resolve, Max bravely asserts himself and matter-of-factly anoints himself as their ruling king.  After assuming the mantle of their leader and protractor, he begins to see how difficult it is to facilitate the demands and hardships of his new friends and his euphoric and utopian fantasy begins to unravel just when the “wild rumpus” was getting started.


On of the most refreshing and evocative aspects of WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE is in its unique and oftentimes off-kilter approach to imagining Max’s dream world.  The Wild Thing faraway land is not colorful, lush, vibrant, eye candy; it is a universe of washed out, sepia toned jungles, marshes, beaches, desert-like vistas, all which are both mysterious, inviting, but scary in their own right.  Using his long-time cinematographer Lance Acord, Jonze creates a subdued and grizzly veracity to this world, thanks largely to Acord’s masterful handheld compositions and the flirtatious and freewheeling camera movements used throughout to frame the ruggedness of the Australian terrain (the film’s actual shooting location).  The audacity of Jonze’s approach here cannot be understated: He presents the Wild Things' world both as an enigmatic playpen within Max’s mind, but he also portrays it as a place typified by nightmarish colors and hues, evoking the subverted hurt and pain that Max still feels about his altercation with his mother.  Capping off these distinctive stylistic trappings are the childlike chords of the songs by Karen O (of the Yeah Yeahs) alongside Carter Burwell’s quietly riveting musical score.  All in all, Jonze fuses everything together so flawlessly to induce feelings of the pageantry, beauty, and frequent terror that populate this world.


Then there are the creatures themselves, and Jonze makes another inspired choice with them to coalesce with his insistence that everything in the film feel real.  Instead of employing CGI to conjure up these ten-foot tall creations, Jonze went the more difficult – but much more artistically appealing – route of using actual animatronic costumes (provided by Jim Henson's company) whose facial expressions are articulated by both on-set mechanics and computer imagery.  The result is as flawless of an effect as I have seen as all of these creatures, through the film’s artifice, display an enormous range of plausible emotions, making them all resonate as individual characters.  These creatures are utterly unforgettable and it’s a testament to Jonze’s foresight to film them as tangible entities within the film, which further grounds the film.


The voice talent on board also is stupendous, suggesting all the subtle personality quirks that reside within these larger than life personas.  James Gandolfini, whom has made a career of playing amoral tough guys, has never been so vulnerable and delightfully spunky as Carol, a boss of sorts to the “Things.”  I also liked the mellow and calm inflections of Chris Cooper as the bird-like Douglas and Catherine O’Hara as the chatty, selfish, mind-game playing Judith.  The rest of the monsters are rounded off with Forrest Whitaker as the mild mannered Ira and Paul Dano as Alexander (a late scene between him and Max is deeply effective and touching).  Of course, all of these superlative voice performers are linked to Max Record’s beyond-naturalistic performance as the fictional Max. Very few child actors – or performers in general – display the fine and delicate balance between playing overt and selfish peevishness and a soul-searching innocence and naiveté as he does here.  Max here is totally alive, unhinged, and vivaciously enlightened, especially when he grows to the actualization that his finest escape would be in terms of reconciling with his mother back home.


That last point directly brings me to the detractors of the film, who callously lambasted that it's too ferociously real for child viewers; this is the lamest of red herrings.  There is a point to be made that WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE has scenes and images that are dark, dreary, and unsettling, but no one should confuse the film with being mean, spiteful, or violent for that matter (I would be quick to point out that films as cherished and revered as DUMBO, PINOCCHIO, and BAMBI have moments that are deeply troubling and frightening).  I think it is the rawness and realism that Jonze imparts on all of the characters that worries parents perhaps more than children.  Too many neat and annoyingly tidy children’s entertainments are affably minded, hopelessly innocuous, and pleasantly package up moral sermonizing in easily digestible dosages.  With WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE we finally have a family film that honors and champions the complexity of children, and one of the subtle triumphs of the film occurs when viewers – both young and old – try to process and come to grips with the feelings of Max.  There is a sense of resonating discovery here in the sense that – as Max is trying to gain a sense of understanding with the conflicts in his world – we too are engaging in the same process. 


That is what annoys me about deeply conservative parents: their fear of exposing their children to challenging and difficult-to-categorize films that just don’t throw ostentatious eye candy at the screen (like MONSTERS VS ALIENS).  Jonze’s WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE respects the intelligence of all its viewers – in all of its wondrous and bold simplicity and execution – for how it accurately addresses and deals with monumental childhood uncertainties, doubts, and hard-to-decipher emotions.  The reality of the film is with how it truthfully depicts the sometimes fractured mother/son relationship bond (and no more better than in the film’s final, tear-inducing sequence, as delicately acted as any out there).  The magic of the film outweighs all of the ignorant cynics out there: The positive and heartening message of WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE is that a child’s delving into fantasy and dreams is a coping mechanism for trauma.  I could not think of a more affirmative and worthwhile theme for family filmgoers, and that’s why Jonze’s WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE is a deeply moving, sometimes elusive and untamed, and profoundly beautiful and poetic love ballad to the wonders of dreams and the authenticity of dealing with problems outside of them.  


It’s also, most assuredly, one of the best films of 2009.

  H O M E