FILM REVIEW: Where The Wild Things Are

PG • 94 mins • 11 December

Director: Spike Jonze
Cast: Max Records, Catherine Keener, James Gandolfini, Paul Dano, Catherine O’Hara

Rating:

Maurice Sendak’s 1963 children’s book contains a scant 48 pages, the vast majority taken up with the creator’s now iconic watercolour illustrations. It’s been a beloved tome for decades, but known more for the feelings it generates than the simple story of Max, a troubled, lonely, but deeply emotional boy who conjures up a world of giant, furry/feathered beasts that he can rule in his wolf suit. Not the easiest of plots to film, then, and most previous attempts have been animated shorts.

But Spike Jonze, the man who brought us Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, wanted to try something different. He wanted to distil the emotions pulsing through the book, the essence of Sendak himself, and capture how the story made Jonze himself feel when he read and connected with it as a child. To his credit, he’s done a spectacular job.

Working with writer Dave Eggers, Jonze has bashed out a screenplay that expands and explores Sendak’s world, and mixes his own worldview with Sendak’s to create something fresh and yet of a piece. He’s spun this adaptation into an emotional journey that sidesteps all the usual expected milestones in favour of something scarier – and we don’t mean the moment the creatures ponder snacking on the new arrival. This is not (though we’re sure the studio that spent more than $80 million making it might wish it was) a film aimed squarely at kids, though many of them will love it. No, it’s about being a child like Max: a dreamer, a loner, an occasional outcast. What narrative there is won’t please those who walk in expecting a straightforward “children’s movie”, since there are few clear-cut, spoon-feeding plot beats lurking in the woods here. Our hero does figure out some issues floating in his life, but you don’t get an easy resolution; nor are there simple jokes. Every moment is tied to character.

Shot primarily in Australia, the look of the movie is stunning, with lo-fi production design and earthy tones that conjure the book’s illustrations while supporting the tone. Yet while the visuals are certainly beautiful in an autumnal, melancholic way, it’s the performances that sing. Jonze rounded up a superb set of actors to help bring this world to life, from Catherine Keener’s small-but-vital role of Max’s mother, to the voice performers who power the big beasts. James Gandolfini is the stand-out as Carol, a neurotic, changeable type who’s capable of true love but angers easily. There’s also sterling work from Catherine O’Hara (as the cynical Judith), Paul Dano (as the depressed Alex), Forest Whitaker (as the conflicted Ira) and Lauren Ambrose, burning with teenaged disaffection and spirit as KW. As we quickly discover, the Wild Things are children themselves – quick to squabble, easy to upset, but bursting with glee when the mood strikes.

It all truly rests on the shoulders of young Max Records, who Jonze discovered at the tender age of nine and faced not only a long, torturous shoot, but also the challenge of acting alongside stone-faced puppets (which were then boosted with some excellent CG expressions) for the vast majority of his screen time. The young actor is a revelation – kinetic and real, heartfelt and funny, unafraid to follow his director’s instructions to make Max a difficult lad to love for part of the film. He’s struggling with a world that’s changing around him. His parents are divorced, his sister is too old to indulge his fantastical whimsy and even his deep imagination isn’t shielding him from the frustration he feels. Records embodies it all: the crazed joy he feels initially with Carol and company, and the bitterness that wells up when he realises that maybe his hairy pals don’t have all the answers.

No film is necessarily easy to make, but you get the feeling – and, given the length of time it was in production this really was tough – that Jonze poured his heart and soul into the work, driven to drag it to the screen in the face of criticism and misunderstanding. It’s a divisive and sometimes difficult film, but if you let it into your heart, you’ll end up grateful.

James White