Like many children in America, I remember being read only two books growing up: “The Cat in the Hat,” and “Where the Wild Things Are.” The former got a movie adaptation that few would ever like to mention again, while the latter, after so many years, finally made it to the big screen.
“Where the Wild Things Are” is a movie adaptation I’ve been waiting for for quite some time. The idea of how someone could take 10 sentences and turn it into a feature length film fascinated me. The end result is something of a mixed bag; an intense labor of love that just isn’t given all the love it truly needs.
In order to make the story fit a feature length, director/writer Spike Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers added a backstory. Young Max (Max Records) feels isolated from the rest of the world. He doesn’t have friends, he has an indifferent older sister, and divorced parents.
Just like in the book, Max’s frustrations mount to him donning the trademark wolf suit, biting his mother, and then sailing off to the land of the Wild Things. There, he meets the tough but lonely Carol (James Gandolfini), the bullied Alexander (Paul Dano), and the free-spirited KW (Lauren Ambrose).
Like in the book, Max becomes their king. Here though, he learns that it ain’t easy being in charge.
“Where the Wild Things Are” was brought to the big screen by one of Hollywood’s most wildly imaginative directors, Spike Jonze. This is his third film, following “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation.” His version of “Where the Wild Things Are” proves to be not only Maurice Sendack’s vision, but also his own. He turns the island of the Wild Things into a land of not only dense forests but also desolate, empty deserts. And there’s a giant dog.
Like “Being John Malkovich,” “Where the Wild Things Are” takes place entirely inside one person’s imagination. In this case, it’s in Max’s head. Unlike the book, Jonze doesn’t seem to distinguish between Max’s fantasy and reality. Perhaps this is his way of saying Max hasn’t entered the realm of early maturity yet, and the only thing that will accompany him is his dreams.
Before I dish out some complaints of the film, there are a few things here that must be praised. Mainly, it’s Lance Accord’s camerawork. His cinematography ranks alongside “The Assassination of Jesse James” and “Children of Men” as the best of the decade. Some of the best shots come during the “magic hour” of the day when the sun isn’t quite set, but still beams down in golden rays. The desert is used perfectly as a metaphor for Max’s isolation from humanity.
But maybe most profound is the way the Wild Things themselves are depicted. Instead of choosing CGI, Jonze went with old fashioned puppetry. While on set, Records was never talking to a green screen, but rather living, breathing creatures. Then, there’s the way they are introduced. While most directors might make a big deal out of it and create a slow, painful introduction (i.e. Peter Jackson’s “King Kong”), Jonze shows us the Wild Things just seconds after Max arrives.
When I left the film, I felt conflicted. I knew there was something missing from the film, but I just didn’t know what. While it’s understandably hard to turn 10 sentences into an entire film, the approach seemed a little backwards. In a way, almost nothing seems to happen in the film. While the Wild Things certainly are given a human face, some of the conflict felt a little forced. At one point, Carol asks Max if he knows the feeling when your teeth spread apart as you get older. Lines like this sound more like Andy Rooney observations than actual thematic discussion.
Maybe “Where the Wild Things Are” could also be a victim of bad timing. The film about the child who creates a fantasy world to escape their horrible reality has become quite commonplace. It was done best most recently with “Pan’s Labyrinth.” In a way, I wish Jonze laid the plot out a little more like that film. “Pan’s” felt more like a story with actual challenges facing Ofelia in her own fantasy.
In the end, I still do appreciate everything Jonze did to make this movie. I call it a labor of love because I know Jonze truly did all he could to get his vision on the screen. It’s a labor of love like Copolla’s “Apocalypse Now,” Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner,” or Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” in which the style is so flawlessly executed that most might lose the meaning of exactly what was going through the director’s head. Could this version of “Where the Wild Things Are” be so personal to Jones that it might just be lost on us?
Max was a hero to me in my youth and his character continues to interest me. Jonze makes him out to be not just an outsider, but also something of a misguided rebel. Could he be a boy with no love in his life who deserves it like Jim Stark? Or just someone as emotionally immature as Holden Caufield?
But let’s not over-analyze. The simple message of this film is the power of a little bit of love. It’s a message so simple yet so brilliant that only 10 sentences are needed to fully illustrate its power.