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Movie Review: Where the Wild Things Are

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Spike Jonze has been MIA for seven years on the movie scene. However, he has come back with a vengeance and delivered one of the most brilliant family films about being a young boy on the cusp of finally having to grow up. After author Maurice Sendak saw Jonze’s breakout film Being John Malkovich, he knew who he wanted to adapt his famous children’s book. Since then, audiences have had no idea what to expect from a live-action version of Where the Wild Things Are.

The film, written by Jonze himself along with author Dave Eggers, who also has written his own adaptation of the original novel, have taken a nine-sentence story and expanded it into a 107-minute opus to the child inside every boy growing in the years since the book’s original publication in 1963. After having just watched Eggers'  Away We Go only a few days prior to the screening of Where the Wild Things Are, I knew that, along with Jonze's direction, there would be more than enough character and emotion to sustain a feature-length running time

Catherine Keener has now had a role in all three of Jonze’s films. From her hilarious turns in Being John Malkovich and Adaptation (where she coincidentally played herself), she obviously has a great friendship with the director. Jonze directed Keener to an Oscar nomination for her role in Being John Malkovich. This time she takes a backseat to the star of Where the Wild Things Are, Max Records who plays the lead as Max.

By now, many people are familiar with the tale of Max and his adventures with the Wild Things, whether they have read the book or not. With the three most realistic opening scenes of being a young boy ever, we can see that Jonze is up to task in bringing everything necessary to the table while still maintaining this as his film. Who hasn’t run around the house as a child screaming and chasing their dog, terrorizing it with as much fake ferocity as one can muster? It’s the most natural thing for a child to do with a pet. As a grown up I still do it.

The second scene shows Max tunneling out an igloo across the street from his house and gathering snowballs for a showdown with his sister Claire (Pepita Emmerichs) and her friends. After starting the snowball fight, he runs across to his igloo for shelter. He is being followed by Claire’s friends, who proceed to jump onto the igloo and bring it tumbling down on top of him. Of course Max is upset and can’t help but cry, as he’s infuriated that things have gone too far. Why is Max really crying? Anyone who’s been in this situation as a child can tell you that Max is really upset with himself for having the world’s greatest idea crushed by his own selfishness in the situation.

A third scene shows Max taking retaliation upon his sister by running into her room covered in snow, jumping on her bed and destroying a figurine he made for her. After he stands around taking into account his own actions, he looks down and notices the figurine, now ruined, and again begins to cry.

I remember once when I was told I was not to do something while my parents were away and was so infuriated, I put a Fisher-Price Corn Popper through the wall. Only then did I realize what I had done and began frantically trying to find a way to cover it up before they came home. The hole was covered up, but not until long after I had mentally punished myself more than my parents ever could have.

One night Max sees his mother kissing her boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo) on the couch downstairs. Clearly Max is not happy about this but he does not say anything. His mom (Keener) passes him in the hall on the way to the kitchen to make dinner for him and Claire. When Max sees his mom is making frozen corn he decides to lash out at her in distaste by standing on top of the kitchen table and demanding, “Make me food, woman!”

This infuriates his mother, who demands he act more appropriately and grabs Max to get him off the table. A scuffle ensues, Max bites him mom in retaliation and runs out the front door and down the street with a huge smile on his face. He runs to a waterfront and screams hysterically into the night before calming down and spying a sail boat in the water. He climbs inside and sails off to the island where the "wild things" are.

Once upon this strange new land he meets the motley crew of creatures. While at first Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini) talks him into helping destroy their homes, the rest simply want to eat him. Lots of talk of eating things or other people takes place in this movie, it’s all rather hilarious really and never gets too frightening. After Max talks them out of eating him by explaining that he is a great king from another land with powers beyond their imagination Carol crowns him their own king.

Max discovers that each creature has its own purpose in the world, whether it be putting holes in the trees like Ira (voiced by Forest Whitaker), wanting attention like Alexander (voiced by Paul Dano), being counted on for everything like Douglas (voiced by Chris Cooper), or just plain being a downer like Judith (voiced by Catherine O’Hara).

Along the way, Max realizes the only way to keep his new friends happy is to put them to work building a huge fort where they can all live and sleep in piles together. He assigns jobs to everyone to keep them busy and at first things seem perfect. His own insecurities start to come shining through in each of the creatures, along with hints about why his own dad is not in the picture.

The movie deals well with not only with having to grow up and move on into your teenage years, but with children’s own anger issues and the instability of dealing with adult matters well beyond their years. Is Max meant to stay with the creatures forever and try to live moment by moment keeping everyone happy? Or does he need to learn how to deal with his own life and return home where he’s sure his family misses him?

If you’ve read the book, you are sure to know the answers to how everything turns out, but that doesn’t mean you should skip the movie. It features one of the most brilliant child performances in recent memory, especially notable because little Max (the actor) has very little human interaction during the film.

As for the creatures, they are so astoundingly rendered through the use of animatronics, life-size puppets and computer-generated faces, that you never once think you’re looking at anything except living, breathing creatures. Where the Wild Things Are is undisputedly where everyone needs to be this weekend.

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About Cinenerd

A Utah based writer, born and raised in Salt Lake City, UT for better and worse. Cinenerd has had an obsession with film his entire life, finally able to write about them since 2009, and the only thing he loves more are his wife and their two wiener dogs (Beatrix Kiddo and Pixar Animation). He is accredited with the Sundance Film Festival.
  • http://nickleshi.blogspot.com Nick

    Thanks for your review. I loved the film. Spike Jonze is a great director.

  • http://missus-emm.blogspot.com Emm

    This is the most brilliant review! You’ve really done a great job of reviewing an amazing film.