I was afraid that I had forgotten what it was like to be a child, my own memories having faded and mixed with the archetypes of youth that pop-culture has drilled into me, but the opening scenes of Where the Wild Things Are feel more authentic than any muddled memory I can muster. Before ever visiting the land of wild things, the young boy named Max spends an afternoon building an extravagant igloo, only to have his sister's friends—in a moment of recklessness—cave it in. His anger and rejection are wordlessly apparent as he destroys his sister’s room in a fit of rage. Later that night, as Max relaxes beneath a table while his mother is on the telephone, he studies her face. Her conversation sounds like white noise but her expressions reveal emotions without drawing attention to them.
Moments like these bubble to the surface and endear themselves throughout Where the Wild Things Are, but when given the chance to let his imagination truly run free, why does Max, by proxy director Spike Jonze, invent such dreary friends for himself?
You might already know the story of Maurice Sendak’s 1963 children’s book, but as a recap—Max gets in an argument with his mother and retreats to an imagined world of strange creatures, where he rules as king. Sendak’s story is not the most substantial piece of writing, totaling a mere nine sentences in all, and Spike Jonze has approached writer Dave Eggars to fashion a new story for the film that draws upon the themes and emotions from the acclaimed book. Eggars' take on the story trades the visual-reliant style for a lot more talkiness, giving human voices and personalities to his wild things, but it's a mystery why he chose to have the otherworldly characters spend most of their screen-time sulking and discussing the futility of life.
Here's an example: upon arriving in the magical forest of the wild things, Max announces himself as their leader and their first question is whether he will take away all the sadness. Such oppressive melancholy colors much of the second half of the film, and Eggars' attempts to riff on Max's loneliness and fears by having them physically invade his dream world never reach any narrative finality, making the thinness of the original conceit all the more apparent.
Yet, there’s no denying the impressive look and feel of the film. Jonze's decision to use a hand-held camera affords a lot of maneuverability, allowing us to experience the world from the viewpoint of a child. Likewise, his determination to forgo the popular CGI route for the wild things, instead adorning the actors in rubber suits and digitally manipulating their expressions, is in keeping with the organic DIY feel of the film. Both Max Records as Max and Catherine Keener as his mother are perfectly cast, and even the actors playing the wild things turn in wonderfully-nuanced performances despite the cheerless subject matter.
As a children's story, I can't see many kids latching onto the heady themes of Jonze's film—their attention is more likely to focus on the impressive visuals and wonderful look of the wild things themselves—but, even eye-popping visuals can only compensate for so much gloom. Putting aside the question of its appeal to youngsters, I think adults too will tire of the exhaustive in-fighting and passive-aggressive nature of the creatures which mirror real-life people a bit too closely. The lack of a narrative that properly reflects the source material's simple exhilaration ultimately hurts a film with a lot of visual richness, leaving Where the Wild Things Are a terribly bittersweet experience.
Cross-published on Ornery-Cosby and Twitch.