Where The Wild Things Are is the long-awaited film adaptation of Maurice Sendak's seminal children's book. Directed by Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) and with a screenplay by Jonze and Dave Eggars (author of A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius and the McSweeney's Quarterly Concern literary magazine), the film expands upon the original tale, and features voice work by James Gandolfini, Forest Whitaker, Catherine O'Hara, Paul Dano, and Chris Cooper.
Max is a pretty typical kid. His vivid imagination helps him construct a strategic military outpost in his snowy front yard, envision a swelling flood in his bedroom (from which he must save his family and stuffed animals), and when he dons his animal costume he actually becomes a wild animal. He's also prone to being alternately moody, selfish, and destructive. All in all, a pretty average kid. But one day after feeling more or less all of the above, as well as a perceived growing distance between him and his family, Max flees the house and runs. He runs into the streets, through the woods, hops in a boat and journeys across wind and waves, and finally lands on a distant shore.
He finds that this new land is inhabited by large creatures, and although frightened by their size and violent playfulness, he is also driven by a desire to join their group. Initially to protect himself from their wrath, he pretends to be a king from a distant kingdom. And wouldn't you know it, they're in need of a king. The creatures look to Max to lead, nurture, and organize them. And as it turns out, they're also a lot like Max himself; some are moody, some are selfish, and some are destructive. Max sees a lot of himself in the creatures, but he also sees that he is not much of a king either. And when one of the creatures – Carol – learns that Max might not be what he pretends to be, his rage begins to swell once again, putting Max in much more real danger.
To get a few things out of the way, it's important to know what Where The Wild Things Are is and what it isn't. What it is not is a literal word-for-word retelling of the book. This seemed to surprise exactly two people, but managed to frustrate several more. And even though simple math and logic would reveal that a book that short would have to be expanded in some way or other to fill anything approaching movie length, still people complained. However, what it is becomes something greater because of that wandering and freedom. It actually manages to retain the spirit of the book, as well as the basic structure of it, but then grows that into a much bigger and richer world. The creatures become multi-faceted characters, Max's journey has an arc of self-awareness, and the whole thing feels grounded in more emotional honesty.
To do this, the movie also became a bit more dark. Not too dark, mind you, but enough to make it real. Max's fear is grounded in actual danger, his exhilaration is more reckless, and the pathos of the creatures yields some less than feel-good moments. In fact, it's hard not to look at the film without thinking a bit about the darkness of other kids movies from the past, such as The Neverending Story. In the same way, the film never talks down to children, but connects with them at their level, and gives them enough emotional reality to then let the fantastical part of the adventure become something richer. And it refuses to sacrifice any of the experience for fear of being "too dark." Jonze then expertly tunes the whole experience into something that grown-ups can also identify with. To say that you don't see a little bit of the kid you were in Max's behavior might mean that you've either forgotten too much or lived too little.
It's also nice to see all of the smaller touches that went into making this a kid-oriented picture. The proliferation of hand-held camera work means that there are a lot of kid-level vantage points to the visuals. The musical score is made from simplistic and natural elements, complimented by kid-like singing. Jonze, Eggars and company did a great job of dialing their brains back to a pre-pubescent era, but also managed to make a very striking looking film.
Included with the film is a new short, entitled "Higglety Pigglety Pop! Or There Must Be More To Life" (HD, 23:30). It deserves special mention above other special features for a couple of reasons. The first reason is that at over 20 minutes in length, it is a substantive bit of material. The second is that it is another Maurice Sendak story translated to film. However, the tone of this short is markedly different from the feature. The tale centers around a house dog (voiced by Meryl Streep) who dreams of what must lie out in the greater world, beyond the staid plight of simply having your needs supplied for the taking; a life with no surprises and no adventures. So the dog sets out, and in just her first outside encounter decides that she wants to be an actress in a traveling show. But without any prior experience, she is sent on her way. As she strolls off, crestfallen, she meets another character offering her "an experience," helping a baby in a castle to eat; a job at which so far everyone has failed. Why would feeding a baby be so hard? And will this give her "experience" to help her fulfill her new dream of acting?
As kid-friendly as the brief outline of the story might sound, its execution is quite odd and unsettlingly dark. The story is told through a mix of live action and puppetry, but with the feel of an experimental art film. It isn't scary as much as it is creepy, and the slight resolution at the end doesn't offer sufficient payback for the dark tone of the prior acts. It's difficult to imagine that this will actually find an audience with kids and seems more suited for an older class of viewers coming to this release – and Sendak's primary book in general – out of a more mature nostalgia.
The 1080p encode for the movie looks appropriately filmic. Clarity is mostly very sharp, and the more restricted color palette of the the film, with its focus on greys and earth tones, is enhanced by some truly enchanting cinematography. The only complaint would be that in a couple of the darker scenes there can be a loss of detail, although the hand-held camera approach might contribute. But really, that's only if you're intently looking for complaints, as the Blu-ray delivers an overall very impressive image that is true to the film.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is both strong and immersive. Dialogue is mixed in with focus, while still leaving ample room for the beautiful soundtrack and a whole host of sound effects. Oh, the effects! The surround track literally tumbles, explodes, bounces, and screams along with Max and the creatures. The action is spaced around to all channels, pulling you in to the fracas. There is never a dull – and neither is there an overblown – minute with the excellent audio offering.
Although missing a couple of standard bonus features (such as a commentary track), Where The Wild Things Are seems to make up for it with content appropriate to the release. "HBO First Look" (HD, 13:02) is certainly a cut above the typical making-of feature, and offers an excellent overview of the development and intent of the movie. "Maurice and Spike" (HD, 3:15) captures the director and author admiring each other's work, but most of this material is found in the HBO feature, and at a better pace. "Max and Spike" (HD, 6:37) is a heart-warming look at the friendship between the director and his kid star. "The Records Family" (HD, 6:45) expands on the previous bonus item, giving a more in-depth glimpse at both Max and his family, leaving you with the impression that sometimes normal kids do get to make movies. "Carter Burwell" (HD, 4:39) is a look at the composer for the film and his approach to creating a soundtrack for Max's world. "The Absurd Difficulty Of Filming A Dog Running And Barking At The Same Time" (HD, 5:32) is exactly what it sounds like. "The Big Prank" (HD, 3:23) was… really not very funny. "Vampire Attack" (HD, 0:51) is a short, goofy moment of Spike trying to scare Max. "The Kids Take Over The Picture" (HD, 4:57) is a great look of how the makers of the film went to great lengths to make the whole experience kid-friendly, right down to encouraging everyone to bring their kids to the set so they could enjoy making the film along with their parents.
The Blu-ray release comes with an additional standard DVD disc that also doubles as a digital copy disc (with insert containing an activation code).
Where The Wild Things Are feels every bit like a genuine movie about childhood. It harnesses and shines a light on the emotions of being young and finding your way in an often messy world, while appropriately capturing the imagination – which can be at times both majestic and frightening – that too many of us have lost over the years. I would suspect this last bit might explain some of the criticisms thrown around regarding the movie. For those who can still remember what it was like to be young, to have adventures, to imagine a secret world and to long for acceptance, Where The Wild Things Are will feel like a big, giant, hairy shoulder to lean against.