To a child, the world can be a frightening, lonely place. Where the Wild Things Are is a manifestation of those fears, a perplexing Freudian ego analysis masquerading as a children's film that will baffle youngsters and leave many adults just as puzzled.
A Spike Jonze adaptation of Maurice Sendak's revered children's book, Where the Wild Things Are, the film is a dark Brothers Grimm tale without the Walt Disney-style sanitizing for a mass audience. It's wholly original and yet mostly inaccessible.
Still, it's remarkable that such a film even exists given the limited scope of the source material, itself less than 50 pages.
Jonze, who directed and co-wrote the film, was forced to take liberties with Sendak's book about a misbehaving boy, Max, who wishes himself into a fantasy world of unruly monsters where he is proclaimed king.
The film provides considerable more back- story to Max and his situation.
Max (Max Records in a standout performance) is a son of divorced parents who suffers from issues of abandonment by his father, who is never seen; his older sister (Pepita Emmerichs), who has moved on to be with friends her age, and his mother (Catherine Keener), who is busy juggling a rocky career and a personal life.
Jonze tries valiantly to paint a respectable portrait of the sister and mother. They aren't bad people, just caught up in their lives like most everyone else. It's Max, then, who has the issues. His outbursts of rage and tears suggest the need for therapy.
After a brief battle with his mother during which he bites her on the shoulder, Max runs away into the night. After stumbling into a forest, he discovers a small sailboat and sets off into the moonlight sea. A night and day's journey leads him to an island where he discovers a small band of large monsters that are remarkably faithful to the book's illustrations and impressively realized on-screen.
In the film's not-so-subtle Freudian subtext, the monsters serve as surrogates of Max and his jumbled emotions.
Alexander (voice of Paul Dano) is ignored. Judith (voice of Catherine O'Hara) is pessimistic. Ira (voice of Forest Whitaker) is loving. The Bull (voice of Michael Berry, Jr.) is shy. Douglas (Chris Cooper) is sensible.
And Carol (voice of James Gandolfini), who looks like a cross between a Henson creation and H.R. Pufnstuf, is angry.
In particular, Carol is mad at KW (voice of Lauren Ambrose), a monster who has left the clan to be with new friends, leaving Carol feeling abandoned and enraged. When Max discovers the monsters, Carol is destroying their homes.
The creatures are at first anything but friendly to Max. They threaten to eat him, but Carol steps in to protect him. After Max spins a wild yarn about being a king with magical powers that can destroy and protect, the monsters proclaim him their leader and a familial bond develops between them, especially with Carol.
But when Max's secret of a life less extraordinary - that of a boy, and not of a powerful king - is revealed to the fractious monsters, his relationship with them changes, most notably with Carol.
Max also grows fond of KW, a friendly, protective monster who has matured beyond the single emotions of the others. But with so much gravitas placed on their relationship, the movie's conclusion is made all the more frustrating. Max's island journey is much about his sister, yet there's never a real-world reconciliation. A Spielbergian moment of family hugs and rainbows in the sky isn't needed, but it would have been nice to see Max and his sister make amends instead of implied emotional growth on Max's part.
Jonze digs deep in his analysis of childhood traumas and the resulting inner pain. But the film's message is rather hollow: There's a time to put away such emotional baggage and grow up.
Such a simple conclusion discounts Max's feelings as being no longer valid by virtue of age. But just because Max's sister has chosen to embrace puberty doesn't mean Max should have to follow suit, nor does it mean his feelings of abandonment aren't justified.
Such criticism usually doesn't involve a children's film, but Where the Wild Things Are isn't your typical children's tale. Its density and thoughtfulness assure a place high above most kiddie fare. It's well-acted and visually sumptuous, with some tremendous set design by Simon McCutcheon and costume work by Casey Storm. But like its hipster indie soundtrack, Where the Wild Things Are fails to offer much to children.
Like a kiss on the cheek from a pretty girl, Where the Wild Things Are is an enticing but ultimately empty gesture that leaves you wanting more.
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