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.