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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Where the Wild Things Are (review)

Mild Thing

Will there be a bigger disappointment for me this year than Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are? Gosh, I hope not: I’m not sure my heart could take it. My heart was, like Things’ miniature hero Max, seeking something rowdy and fierce, and unlike Max, prepared for something even more dangerous, something that would genuinely scare me or move me or startle me. And I didn’t get that. My heart, which may be more wild now than it was when I was a child, remains unstartled and unmoved.
Now, I don’t want to undersell Jonze’s adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s classic picture book [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon U.K.], because it is very faithful to the letter and the spirit and the look of the original story. And that means that even today, when children’s emotions are smothered in summonings of “self-esteem” and any deviation from a perceived norm, no matter how slight, is doused with Ritalin, Max (played with heated fury by Max Records: The Brothers Bloom) is allowed to be the Max he was in the 1960s: adventurous, roaming, freespirited, angry. It’s a portrait that some adults may find uncomfortable (though I wonder if, combined with the rageful child of The Boys Are Back, we might be seeing the beginning of the pendulum swinging away from pop culture embracing the denial of children’s emotions). But I suspect children will embrace it — certainly, the very small girl who sat next to me at my screening screamed with glee at Max’s tantrums.

And as Max runs fuming away from home and a mother (Catherine Keener: The Soloist, Synecdoche, New York) frustrated with her son’s temper, there remains a lovely unexplained fantasy to how he travels — days and nights by sail — to a distant island inhabited only by monsters that might eat him, or might make him their king. Jonze, who adapted Sendak’s book with Dave Eggers, is wonderfully free of any compulsion to make any of it make “sense.” The freewheeling imagination at play here echoes that of the book, and the monsters — unexpectedly voiced by the likes of James Gandolfini (In the Loop, The Taking of Pelham 123), Catherine O’Hara (For Your Consideration, Penelope), Chris Cooper (Married Life, The Kingdom), Lauren Ambrose, Forest Whitaker (Street Kings, The Last King of Scotland), and Paul Dano (Taking Woodstock, There Will Be Blood) — are, like Max, expressive combinations of unruly sentiment and passion. They’re all id, and the blend of puppetry and CGI that animates them is a beautiful example of the power of film that I would be thrilled to introduce any child to.

But maybe it’s because I no longer have the sensitive heart of a child that the film failed to reach me, as an adult. Or maybe it’s because my expectations for Jonze were so high: though he’s made only two feature films prior to this, 1999’s Being John Malkovich and 2002’s Adaptation, they are two of the most strikingly original movies ever made. I feel like I’ve already seen his Where the Wild Things Are… and I have: in the Sendak book.

The film is very much itself, confident and certain and no more and no less than what it needs to be, if the goal were merely to transfer Sendak to the big screen. It’s not a bad thing to be, not at all. I guess I’m just a tad surprised that Jonze was happy to so subsume his vision to someone else’s. It’s not what he’s taught us to demand of him, and this grownup wild thing is saddened to see him tamed.

Watch Where the Wild Things Are online using LOVEFiLM’s streaming service.

MPAA: rated PG for mild thematic elements, some adventure action and brief language

viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine
  • weird, the reactions this movie is getting. from the Yahoo News Movie Roundup:

    “But parents should take note: As one critic puts it, this is a movie about a child, but it’s not a children’s movie.”


    of course, they don’t say *which* critic says that, or why.

  • This movie was the subject of a long and bitter dispute between Jonze and the studio over the final cut. I’m not sure whose vision the theatrical version more reflects.

  • Drave

    Emil: Based on the interviews I have read, the final cut is very much what Jonze wanted to begin with. The reason it took five years to get the movie filmed and released was because he stuck to his guns.

    Bronxbee: I can see where that critic is coming from, but I disagree. I think it is still a family movie, but one that will work on very different levels for children and adults.

    I saw a midnight showing last night, and I was blown away. I disagree that it was merely a surface adaptation of the story. I found the movie to be a much deeper dive into the themes of the book. Instead of having the land of the wild things as a whole represent the boy’s id, we have each monster representing a difference facet of a troubled child’s personality. I don’t think I have ever seen a truer movie about what it’s like to be a nine year old boy.

  • bats :[

    I think a BIG problem with so many of these adaptations (Jumanji, um, Where the Wild Things Are, Cat in the Hat, etc.) is that the books are only 28-36 pages long — and they’re pretty sparse on text!

    Are movies composed of two or three “picture book” stories anathema? I think a number of these adaptations just run out of plot and steam way before the 90-minute mark.

    (Why not have had WTWTA teamed up with “In the Night Kitchen”? Heck, I dunno.)

  • weird, the reactions this movie is getting. from the Yahoo News Movie Roundup:
    “But parents should take note: As one critic puts it, this is a movie about a child, but it’s not a children’s movie.”
    of course, they don’t say *which* critic says that, or why.

    It’s because the reviewer was probably a middle aged housewife/husband that needs to “protect the children” that our society seems to be so obsessed about.
    MA seems to me that she would be more like the modern/bohemian style parent that isn’t afraid to let their child explore and learn and make up their own minds.
    Most parents bring their child to the movies to shut them up or do the parenting for them…

  • JT

    Well, if it didn’t connect with you .. whaddya gonna do?

    I thought it was spectacularly rich, gorgeous to look at, incredibly smart and layered in its themes, and evoking (good and bad) feelings of childhood unlike any other movie I’ve seen in ages. Just thoroughly captivating and beautiful all the way through.

  • MaryAnn

    MA seems to me that she would be more like the modern/bohemian style parent that isn’t afraid to let their child explore and learn and make up their own minds.

    Yes, I like to think I would be like that, if I had a child. Certainly, I would much rather a child see a movie like this one, that is honest about children’s emotions, that one that just panders to a kid’s delight in toilet humor.

  • Lydia

    Interesting that you had that response, MaryAnn. Because, to me, it seemed like the opposite. I thought that Jonze used the images and basic themes of the book as a framing device for a story that was very much his own. A child who is troubled by things ranging from the destruction of his snow fort to the inevitable destruction of the world and the human race seems enraged at his mother, not because she isn’t a good mother (which she seems to be), but because he seems to expect her to be a god who can “make everything okay.” He then becomes a sort of god-king of the Wild Things and must come to terms with his own inability to heal all of their wounds, answer all their questions, and generally be something to them that does not exist. And he must deal with their own rage and feelings of betrayal as a result. In the end he seems more ready to accept that pain is an inevitable part of life and that his mother, no matter how much she loves him, is vulnerable and fallible and unable to fix it all for him. To me it was a coming-of-age parable about the moment when you realize that your parents are not all-powerful gods but just absurd little confused humans like you, as tiny and unsure in the real world as Max feels in his world of the Wild Things.

    I do think it was a flawed film. When I first walked out of the theater, I wasn’t even sure I liked it. It wasn’t what I was expecting at all and I found it very unsettling in a way that I wasn’t sure was good. If anything, I wish it had been a little more wondrous and whimsical before it became so dark and angsty. It could seem almost joyless at times. (Also, I think all the shaky hand-held camera was a little over-the-top. I seriously got motion sickness until I got used to it…) But it has definitely stuck with me and, in hindsight, I do think it was a very good, surprisingly thought-provoking film. I want to see it again, now that I know what to expect.

    btw, Drave, I completely agree about each Thing representing an aspect of Max’s personality. The angry one, the lonely, imaginative one (with the owl friends), the one who feels small and ignored etc.

  • Erik Goodwyn

    I agree with MJ, it’s a good movie…but I wish it hadn’t lagged so much in the middle (a 15 minute trim would have been perfect); the problem is not with the imagery (which is sublime and primal) but with making the wild things so darn humanlike. They’re worried about relationships and breakups and not being heard. I get that each wild thing is a part of Max’s psyche–this is a Freudian dream; it could have used more Jung. Wild things don’t “get in touch with their feelings”, they’re primitive gods; they give you mysterious strength (or they can eat you up, which makes them dangerous). The movie is at its best when the wild things are being, well, wild. Like the wild rumpus, or the huge pile-up, or the dirt clod fight. The neurotic pouty moments didn’t quite work as well for me.

    Still, it’s a beautiful movie, and had lots of great moments, like the strong opening, or when Max became king and promises to dispell “the sadness”, the rumpus, the fort building, and when Max leaves (a gorgeous scene). It becomes deflated and fuddy duddy when Max has to “come to terms” with not being King–his rage is fueled by despair and powerlessness for christ’s sake, why rub salt in it?–or all the fretting over the wild thing’s “relationship issues”. It would have been closer to the book if it had stayed more wild and not gotten *quite* so sentimental.

    But perhaps, as MJ points out, that is a sign of the times, where children are pretty much expected to be quiet, sit still, and be ignored, lest they be labeled “attention deficit”.

  • I think Spike Jonze missed out on a great opportunity to make something that would be meaningful to adults and children alike; almost the entire movie seemed like nonsense to me

  • Wow, talk about a snoozer. I struggled to stay conscious while staring at the gorgeous non-sense on screen. Am I the only one who was distracted by the celebrity voices? It was strange hearing a “monster” talk like Tony Saprano.

    It was pretty fun having two toddlers running around the aisle yelling, crawling on the seats and touching people. Why would parents bring their little brats to a 10:30pm showing? Negligent parenting, but good thing they left in the middle of the film. Why would anyone want kids? What a burden!

    I remember reading the book in middle school while I was in in-school-suspension. That was so much more memorable than this one. Pass.

  • wooster182

    I haven’t seen the movie yet. I plan to wait for DVD anyway. But I don’t think Jonze should have veered away from the book. It’s basically a 20+/- poem. How could you put your own spin on it without completely creating a new movie? While it looks like a beautiful film visually, maybe it shouldn’t have been attempted simply because there’s not enough plot to fill 2 hours.

  • Saif

    Idunno, this was the perfect adaptation of the film for me. I’m a sucker for Jonze but this film reached a primal part of me and I kept feeling my heart sinking into my chest for reasons I couldn’t even understand. The film was just so full of a heavy and unbearable feeling that I can’t imagine anything more moving. This is the first film in years that left me stunned with the feelings it evoked. Maybe because Max reminded me of me when I was his age, though I think Max is probably any boy at 9. I don’t know. It’s hard for me to be analytical of something that punched me in the Id with such intensity. I can’t imagine not being moved by the film. Though to be honest, my wife almost dozed off next to me, so. /shrug.

  • Kevin

    I absolutely loved the movie. It’s been over 20 years since I’ve read the book, and I barely remember it, so I can’t really compare, but I thought Jonze did an amazing job. The movie does something that’s incredibly hard for adults to do: it gets what it’s like to be a little boy and expresses it in a way that adults can understand.

  • Lara

    DO NOT TAKE YOUNG CHILDREN TO SEE THIS MOVIE! It was absolutely horrid. I took my 8 yr old daughter; both of us being very eager to see this film that is being hailed as a ‘modern masterpiece’ and an ‘instant classic’. We sat there stunned as this wonderful book was totally gutted and left hanging to dry. Nothing like the book at all. All the monsters were constantly arguing and mad at each other, everybody seemed like they were manic-depressive, running around feeling guilty, depressed, angry, sad, etc. The entire spectrum of negative emotions was thoroughly explored in this movie. I felt manipulated while watching this steaming turd. It felt like some strange government psy-op, designed to bring out the worst in people.

    There were hardly ANY happy moments throughout the entire movie; all the characters (both human and non-human) moped about sadly throughout the film; crying, wallowing in self-pity, anguish, depression, and self-inflicted psychological punishment. Several small children were crying in the theater because it was so sad and negative, I’m not kidding.

    I am so angry at being deceived. The ads for this film portray it as a positive, magical journey, when it was just the opposite. All it is is a flaming exercise in negativity and self-indulgent wallowing. The movie is jam-packed with subliminal messages and suggestions, all designed to make you feel bad about yourself and others. This one will make you feel awful inside for several hours after you leave the theater. NO REDEEMING QUALITIES WHATSOEVER. Nothing but a big shameful sad-fest. I wish I could get my money back. No, I wish I could go back in time and choose never to see it.

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