Director Spike Jonze’s adaptation of Maurice Sendak's classic children’s book “Where the Wild Things Are” is a small miracle. It is a big budget Hollywood film that feels intimate and personal and an adaptation that remains faithful to its source material even as it expands upon it.
A film version of “Wild Things” very easily could’ve been a disaster along the lines of the adaptations of Dr Seuss’ “How The Grinch the Stole Christmas” and “The Cat in the Hat.”
As with the Seuss books, Sendak’s story is only a few hundred words long and scant on plot. It is inevitable that paddling needs to be added to the story to fill it out to feature length. Unlike the padding added to the Seuss films, which was often in stark contrast with Seuss’ spirit and tone, the new material in “Wild Things” feels like an extension of the book.
The book and the film tell the simple story of Max (Max Records), a misbehaving boy who after a fight with his mother (Catherine Keener) escapes into an imaginary land of giant monsters that name him their king.
Within this basic framework Jonze (“Being John Malkovich”) and co-screenwriter, author Dave Eggers, create conflicts between Max and the wild things that deal with real and heavy emotions including love, anger and jealousy in a way that few family films do.
Jonze is a wildly imaginative filmmaker and is the perfect choice for this material both in terms of treating it with respect and capturing Sendak’s vision. The film is often strikingly beautiful. Shots of Max walking along a desert with his monstrous friends will linger in the mind for days.
The wild things themselves are an extraordinary achievement, a seamless blend of physical and computer generated effects. These creatures aren’t merely story devices, but fully conceived characters brought to life by great voicework from James Gandolfini, Catherine O’Hara, Forest Whitaker, Chris Cooper, Lauren Ambrose and Paul Dano.
Records, as the only human character for most of the film, has a challenging role and he meets it. Most movie kids are either too precocious or too obnoxious, Records is neither. His interactions with the wild things are believable, and he keeps Max likable even as he does unlikable things.
“Wild Things” is a realistic portrayal of what it is like to be a kid. Max is shown to be a good, if mischievous kid who is dealing with emotions he doesn’t quite understand and isn’t entirely equipped to deal with yet. This is something kids, and even adults, can relate to.
Some will be quick to say that it is not a kids' movie because it is too dark, too pensive, too melancholy and too slow. That was my initial reaction too, but then I thought about the films that I watched on repeat growing up. I adored films like “The Little Prince” and “The Neverending Story,” which, like “Wild Things,” are about the power of imagination and are dark, thoughtful films.
Most films targeted at kids condescend to them and are attempts by adults to give them what we think they want, which more often than not, is slapstick foolery. Kids, of course, do eat up this kind of superficial entertainment, but they deserve better. The best kids' films will challenge them, maybe even scare them a bit, but at the same time entertain them.
“Wild Things” is full of life lessons, but in contrast to most films, even those targeted at adults, at no point does a character blatantly say what the morals are. They are simply presented and left for the audience to discover on their own.
The best example of this is a sequence in which Max decides that the wild things need to play at war to work through a conflict. There is a very clear lesson, but, as with the rest of the film, it isn’t presented in a ham-fisted or contrived way. Through and through, this is a movie that feels emotionally honest.
Not all kids are going to understand the deeper themes in “Wild Things,” but that’s OK, they will as they get older. The film is certainly not for all tastes either, but for a certain kind of kid, and adult for that matter, this is a film they will cherish and watch over and over again.