Movie Review: Where the Wild Things Are
Recommended for ages 9 and up
Run Time: 94 minutes
Quick Take: A little wilder than the book, the movie version of the beloved Sendak story manages to tame hearts with its classic tale.
Like It or Not, Jonze Takes Us on One Wild Ride
Movies are notoriously subjective things (heaven knows if they weren't, I'd be out of a job).
And, Where the Wild Things Are is even more subjective than most.
I can't remember ever exiting a theater hearing such a wide disparity of reactions:
"I didn't get it."
"It was beautiful."
"Max was a brat."
"What a deep kid."
"Was that a kids' movie?"
That's the danger of turning a 300-plus-word book into a whole movie.
Spike Jonze's interpretation of the book we all grew up with/read to our kids/keep in our college dorm rooms is, well, not to put a fine point on it, a little weird. But that's part of what makes it so loveable. Something about those fuzzy, rotund creatures transported me back to my childhood in a way that transcended mere dialogue and film.
The movie gives the story a few tweaks, like a backstory for Max, and a wild outburst that's more dark than merely mischievious. But the visual translation -- the sensation, really -- is perfect. The boy's pointy-eared wolf PJs; the stout, horned silhouettes of the Wild Things (sigh) -- it might as well have been plucked off the page by some means of supernatural hocus pocus. On the surface, it's pretty simple stuff: a boy, his imagination, good days spent howling at the moon, building the perfect fort, and getting ready for bed in a pile-on of fuzz and paws; bad days spent navigating the (occasionally brutal) playground politics you'd find at any elementary school at recess. And underneath? Well, underneath is all the stuff we remember about being nine.
Still, where I saw romantic adventure, others saw a kid running around with monsters who might eat him. No surprise since the book itself has been variously translated as everything from an escapist fairy tale to a parable about anger management. In Jonze's Wild world, Max may be king, but his command of his subjects -- who, let's face it, have the upper paw in the size department -- is iffy at best. These guys may play like big kids, but we never get to entirely forget that beneath all that fuzz is the appetite of a carnivore. "You got a problem, eat it," says one. If that sounds like tricky territory for a kids' movie, it is, in more ways than one. Where the Wild Things Are is no kid e-drama. It's a slow burn with a cerebral-ness that sometimes feels like we're watching Max work out his issues in therapy. Some adults wondered if it was a kids' movie at all.
Even so, it's pretty mesmerizing stuff. The living embodiment of these beloved gargantuans is no small thing. And the warmth of Max's relationship to James Gandolfini's Carol -- well, even in his scary moments, it doesn't get fuzzier than that. I can't speak to lingering effects (post-movie nightmares, perhaps?) but among the few tots in the theater there was nary a whimper. Maybe that's the bonus of being a kid -- the ability to let the movie wash over you without poking at it for hidden meaning. Or maybe it's the magic of Jonze himself, a guy who seems to understand kids (and their language) in a miraculously authentic way. Or maybe I just didn't have a small child cowering in my bed for a week after.
Still, while I heard magical poetry, others heard a string of non-sequiturs.
"It just didn't go anywhere for me," said a friend on the way out.
Kids Will Like:
In a word: Carol. He may be big and occasionally scary, but underneath, he's the secret friend kids wish for. That the story is told through a kid's eyes is unmistakable. It's hard to imagine a picture-book world more complete.
Parents Will Like:
This is nostalgia with a capital "N." Interplay between Max and his Wild Things is classic kid-speak that stops just short of, "Am not!" "Are too!" Don't think too hard. Just sit back and let it wash over you. The soundtrack's pretty cool, too. (My one wish: I missed the magic that transforms Max's bedroom into a jungle.)
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