(Scroll down for movie trailer!)
Where the Wild Things Are, director Spike Jonze’s take on Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book, is anything but a children’s movie. And it was never supposed to be a children’s movie, either. As Jonze put it, he didn’t set out to make a children’s movie; he set out to make a movie about childhood. And boy, did he succeed.
It’s clear from the get-go that Wild Things isn’t your average movie – there are no beginning credits. Before you even fully realize that the movie has begun, Max is barreling down the stairs in his wolf-suit, hot on the trail of the family dog. The camera-work is spastic and unpredictable. And when the title card finally does appear, it looks like it was scribbled down in a hurry by a 5-year-old. Actually, it probably was.
Max’s life is a rollercoaster. His parents are divorced. His teenage sister can’t be bothered to speak to him. His science teacher is filling his brain with theories about the death of the Sun and the subsequent darkness that will permanently envelop the Earth. And when it all finally reaches the breaking point one night, just before the family sits down for dinner, Max bites his mother in a fit of animalistic rage and flees into the nearby forest.
And he finds a boat. And he sails to an island, where he finds … well, I’m sure you know where I’m headed with this.
The Wild Things are majestic. On the screen, they’re played by actors in giant animatronic suits, created by none other than Jim Henson’s Creature Shop (the Muppets). The monsters’ voices, however, were done by a separate group of actors, who acted out the entire movie, body motions and all, on a foam-covered sound-stage. It is from the latter group of actors that the Wild Things’ facial expressions come from, having been painstakingly computerized onto the giant heads of the suited actors. The results are stunning and quite possibly the most convincing special effects I’ve ever seen.
The cast is great, too. You might recognize the voice of Carol, the head Wild Thing, as HBO’s Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini). And Max, played by the fittingly named Max Records, gives a startling performance way beyond his years – he was only 9 when filming began. Ironically, it might be Records’ lack of any acting experience whatsoever that gives his character – and therefore the entire movie – the relatability that makes Wild Things a masterpiece.
The entire movie feels simultaneously comforting and extremely unsettling. The Wild Things leap from one emotion to the next, alternating between cuddly and frightening. Gandolfini’s Carol is the prime example of this phenomenon. Upon Max’s arrival, he seems like the jolliest beast of the bunch. But by the end of the movie, he’s ripping off the limbs of his fellow Wild Things.
And that brings up an interesting point. Just because this movie was adapted from a classic, beloved children’s picture book doesn’t mean that parents should automatically assume it’s a perfect movie to take their kids to. There are a lot of dark and heavy overtones to the Wild Things and Max’s interaction with them, and while it’s not a particularly violent movie, there are certainly a couple of scenes that may be a bit of a shock to those expecting 90 minutes of innocent, Disney-esque fluff.
This is definitely not a movie for everyone. The plot isn’t very fleshed out, the symbolism is vague, and the ending is somewhat abrupt. But none of that matters. Jonze has crafted an intensely emotional movie that can be interpreted however his viewers choose to interpret it. Where the Wild Things Are is the ultimate movie about the emotional struggles of childhood and learning how to function as a singular part of this chaotic world.