The challenge of turning a 10-sentence children’s book into a feature-length motion picture might seem like a daunting task, but Where the Wild Things Are by director Spike Jonze is evidence that it can be done, and done well. Make no mistake, this isn’t merely a kids’ flick. Instead, it is a film that will captivate adults just as much as young viewers. Jonze has created a film that will resonate with audiences of all ages for years to come, just as the story by Maurice Sendak has captivated readers since it was first published in 1963.
When discussing his big screen adaptation of Sendak’s classic, Jonze said, “I didn’t set out to make a children’s movie; I set out to make a movie about childhood.” And it shows. Adults will connect with Where the Wild Things Are because Jonze manages to weave a yarn that is both fantastical and realistic, both outrageously imaginative and completely grounded in true emotions.
It might seem funny to talk about realism when describing a movie about a boy mingling with make-believe monsters that look like overgrown Muppets. Yet, that is the strength of Where the Wild Things Are. Jonze, with his co-writer Dave Eggers, has written a script, based on Sendak’s brilliantly simple foundation, that explores the primal feelings that are familiar to every child – loneliness, anger, confusion, joy, and love.
Other filmmakers in the past have ruined beloved tales from their youth by trying to expand the story into a different medium, failing to recapture the original’s sense of wonder. Spike Jonze’s retelling of Sendak’s concise fable brings the story to life through the imaginative eyes of a child and, at the same time, the hindsight of a grown-up who finally remembers what it was like to be a kid. As Carol, the Wild Thing, says at one point, “We forgot what it was like to have fun.”
Jonze reminds us what it was like to have fun, when kids enjoyed days flowing into nights and into days again without being enslaved by the sense of time that is one of the many curses of adulthood. He reminds us of the simple pleasures of childhood, when all it took to bring a smile was running around and screaming with abandon. He also manages to show all the pain and fear that is also a part of early life, providing enough hints and clues to explain why the little boy Max (with Max Records perfectly cast in the role) escapes into the fantasy world spawned by his imagination.
The opening scenes in the real world neatly foreshadow the whimsy to come. Max’s winter hat has a crown-like design, and his snow fort is only a tease of the mammoth fortress that he and the Wild Things will later build. Max later interacts with the fanciful creatures in ways that he yearns to engage the real people in his life.
The Wild Things themselves are a marvel. Like Sendak’s iconic illustrations, they look like stuffed animals come to life, the perfect representation of what a young boy’s vivid dreams would be, turning average toys into characters that feel every bit as real and alive as the humans he encounters every day. As I watched the movie, the adult part of me kept whispering in the back of my mind that I was watching a talking goat and frolicking horned giant, but the child in me, that “forever young” part in all of us, was moved to tears and exhilaration by their words and actions. Voiced by James Gandolfini, Lauren Ambrose, Forest Whitaker, Catherine O’Hara, Paul Dano, and others, the Wild Things were equal parts scary and heartwarming.
The movie has some frightening moments, and Max releases his pent up rage in feral bursts of rowdiness throughout, but all those scenes ring true and serve a purpose. Some are already calling Where the Wild Things Are a masterpiece, and there will undoubtedly be those in the other extreme who rate it a failure. I loved every moment of it (except for some early examples of “shaky camera” syndrome), and applaud Spike Jonze and everyone involved in bringing Maurice Sendak’s words and drawings to the big screen.